Magazine article The Spectator

Restaraunt: Dining at the Edinburgh Festival

Magazine article The Spectator

Restaraunt: Dining at the Edinburgh Festival

Article excerpt

THE LAST time I visited the Edinburgh Festival half a dozen years ago, eating out was a distinctly limited affair. The big hotels had their restaurants, there were a few bistro-ish places, a couple of adequate Italians and the usual clutch of ethnics. It somehow summed things up that the favourite place for lunch seemed to be a large, crowded, self-serve vegetarian restaurant called Henderson's, off George Street. How things have changed. Now, within the traffic chaos caused by the moronic decision to close Princes Street to motor vehicles, there is a huge choice of eating places, open at all hours and generally on Sundays too. The only problem is see above -- getting to them.

On a short visit for the Festival's opening days, I had left my friend Andrew Hammond, former baritone, now the Festival's concerts administrator, to research some reasonable places at which to dine. Thus, after the Festival's opening night performance of Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts in the Usher Hall, at which the vacuous faces of the Lord Provost and his kilted or tartan-trewed cronies helped to explain the inadequacy of the traffic planning, we ate near the hall at Stac Polly in Grindlay Street. The strange name refers to a mountain on Scotland's west coast, north of Ullapool, but the restaurant itself is less extraordinary: a series of fairly small, comfortably furnished, adequately lit rooms, with a menu of eclectic modern British cooking, acknowledging Scotland in its choice of ingredients.

Andrew began with a summer salad of Ayrshire ham and smoked goose, accompanied by leaves, herbs and chickpeas, with a honey and orange dressing. The meats were good, but the salad more nondescript than its description implied. My filo pastry parcels of good haggis were spoilt by the aggressive sweetness of the plum sauce, which might assist Peking duck but did little for Edinburgh haggis.

Next Andrew chose a grilled breast of maize-fed chicken on butter beans, with an orange and parsley white wine sauce. Slightly congealing at the edges, this caused him to wonder whether a friendly microwave had helped in its preparation. My choice of wild duck breast on a bed of braised aubergine with a rosemary and port jus was dictated by the sudden termination of the turbot that I had ordered. The thick slices of duck lacked the sinewy texture and gamy flavour I would expect in a wild bird, and the dish was again marred by the sweetness of its sauce. Andrew ended with a rather solid slice of toffee pudding surrounded by a good toffee sauce, and I with admirable blackberry and almond ice cream, from which I had asked for various chocolate additives to be removed. With a bottle of red burgundy and coffee, the bill came to a slightly high 75.50 for cooking whose enthusiasm seemed to outreach its expertise.

More assured cooking of this kind can be found in what is currently regarded as Edinburgh's most successful restaurant (it has a star in the 1998 Michelin Guide), Atrium, part of the new Traverse Theatre complex beside the Usher Hall. Andrew and I lunched there after Ian Bostridge's impressive song recital of Schumann and Wolf in the Queen's Hall. Once we had recovered from the bizarre, dimly illuminated, cave-like surroundings, apparently lit by stalactites, with weirdly draped, strangely shaped though comfortable chairs, we enjoyed our meal.

Andrew's roasted tomato soup with basil aioli was reassuringly intense, as was my tasty warm ciabatta, covered with thin slices of well spiced pastrami with peppers and pesto. …

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