IS THERE a more beautiful or atmospheric restaurant in Edinburgh – or Britain – than the Café Royal Oyster Bar? This, as I’ve just explained to my daughter as she took a break from grappling with the hidden meanings of Macbeth, is a rhetorical question: of course there isn’t.
The place exudes class; it’s absolutely drenched in the stuff.
There’s much you can disagree with Irvine Welsh on, but he’s spot-on when it comes to his views on this venerable little restaurant. You don’t last for 150 years without being a little bit tasty, and if I was to dream up a bustling, ceaselessly busy little city-centre restaurant, then the place that I’d have in my mind’s eye would be the Café Royal. It has even got a similarly stunning and equally popular pub just through a set of double doors: seriously, what more could you ask for?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its name, the place resembles a Parisian bistro and is small, claustrophobic even, with tables that are almost too small. Yet, despite that, the ambience and surroundings are otherwise unbeatable. It’s the size – or, more precisely, the lack of it – that means the place is always full, and as it’s hidden away off the main drag so that you’ve got to know it’s there, the place is generally stuffed full of noisy Edinburghers at play.
But, without wishing to come over all Sarah Beeny, it’s the décor that really makes the place. Not in a chintz-and-china or minimalist way, but in the fact that its unchanging baroque splendour so perfectly reflects the ambition of Victorian Edinburgh. On one wall are ancient mirrors, and behind the marbled bar there are ten superb stained glass representations of all manner of sportsmen; intricate Doulton ceramic murals adorn the walls, and the ceilings are covered by a lattice of fine cornicing.
Even if you’re not overly hung-up on interior design, the place has so much easy, majestic charm and grandeur that it’s impossible not to luxuriate in your surroundings. We surely have many reasons to be thankful for Robert Hume, the plumber-turned-entrepreneur who levelled this corner of town in 1861 and rebuilt it as it now stands.
Nothing, however, is perfect, a fact that was brought home to us as we arrived to be confronted – that’s definitely the right word – by a scowling Spanish waiter whose unsmiling, stroppy demeanour remained resolutely unwelcoming throughout our meal. Unimpressed by borderline rude service delivered at a glacial speed, for the first time that I can remember, and in defiance of all I promised during a brief and notably unsuccessful career as a waiter, I left without tipping.
But I digress – what about the food? I last ate here two months ago, when the result was a good hearty lunch. This time, however, the quality took a major step in the wrong direction.
The first problem was the list of five pretty dull starters – black pudding and apple gratin, cullen skink, smoked beetroot and goat’s cheese salad, smoked salmon, and smoked duck – none of which really took our fancy. Instead, we decided to share a seafood platter for one, which consisted of half a lobster, three natural oysters, six Kilpatrick oysters (wrapped in bacon, grilled and drizzled in balsamic vinegar), a scallop, smoked salmon and three breaded prawns. What a mixed bag: I’ve been lucky enough to have had lobster straight from a Hebridean creel, so I know how good it can be, but this was both chewy and clammy; the scallop spot-on; the smoked salmon perfectly good; while the prawns felt old and tired. It was, however, the oysters that gave us greatest pause for thought.
Once the staple diet of Edinburgh’s poor (when the Caves venue, off the Royal Mile, was excavated a few years ago, tons of crushed oyster shells were removed from its basements), oysters have remained the speciality of the house. They are served in four different ways at the Café Royal, yet once again the quality varied markedly, with the natural oysters the superior version while the six kilpatricks had been grilled to within an inch of their lives and topped with incinerated bacon.
When it came to my main course of salmon Wellington stuffed with wild mushrooms, there was no danger of finishing the meal hungry. It thudded onto the plate, and while the salmon was a little overcooked, the lightness of the pastry and the fact that there was plenty of the white wine cream sauce more than atoned for this shortcoming. More worrying, though, was the fact that the mangetout were so horribly overcooked that they had begun to shrivel, while the chef had apparently attempted to pep up the bland sweet potato with chilli from a jar – which only succeeded in lending it a sickly, metallic taste but no extra bite.
Charlie fared better with his fish stew, a rich, tomato-crimson bowl of fishy goodness stuffed full of salmon, coley, mussels and clams. Nor was it just about the quantity: the shellfish was perfectly done, while the chef had taken the trouble to cook the salmon and coley separately, and it showed.
Happily, this seems to be becoming a habit, but our puddings – Charlie chose the raisin and butterscotch pudding with vanilla ice-cream, while I went for the plum crumble with custard – were every bit as impressive as the other facets of our meal (although the rather reasonably priced bottle of Gavi gave it a run for its money).
Ultimately, though, this was a meal that didn’t do justice to the surroundings, even if the surroundings make that a tall order. Charlie, no mean cook himself, summed it up pretty accurately and succinctly. “For atmosphere, nine out of ten; for food, a five – as I’m feeling generous; for service, a one.” That, rather sadly, just about covers it.
Café Royal Oyster Bar
19 West Register Street, Edinburgh
(0131-556 1884, www.caferoyal.org.uk) Bill please
Starters £4.80-£8.15 Oysters from £9.50 for six Main courses £10.20-£27.75
Cheese £6.50 Rating
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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