EVEN in my advancing years, I’m still prone to rookie errors. My latest was giving the sophisticated and languid Bond No 9 a dry run on a midweek afternoon in mid-August ahead of the recent visit of a good pal who I hadn’t seen for ages. The experience reminded me that foresight, planning and careful deliberation ain’t what they’re cracked up to be.
STAR RATING 7/10
Back in August, we walked into this large but low-ceilinged contemporary cocktail bar in the same block of former whisky bond that also houses The Kitchin, Chop Chop and Mithas, and loved the look of the place. There was a quiet serenity to proceedings and it was dark and pleasantly cool, especially compared with the oppressive heat outside (oh, to be oppressed more often). Anyway, we decided against the wonderful covered conservatory and instead ate outside on one of the tables on the cobbled pedestrian area that overlooks an offshoot of the docks. As the sun shone and the water from the nearby fountain formed a soothing backing track, this was an idyllic venue perfectly suited to a blether and years of catch-up.
Fast forward to a chilly Saturday night in mid-September and the lie of the land looked very different indeed. By now, sitting outside wasn’t an option even had we decided to bring the thermals and duck-feather jackets, while the chilled conservatory with its low benches and tables was full of folk intent on making as much noise as possible. In fact the whole place was packed to the rafters, a seething hubbub of raucous chat and people conspicuously enjoying themselves. This, it quickly became clear, was not the perfect venue for a quiet chat.
Nor, despite the laudable guff on their website about children’s portions and the provision of high chairs, was it the sensible time and place for Damon and I to bring our kids. Even had it not been immediately obvious that this was an adult environment, it was spelled out when we were politely told that their licence meant that children had to leave by 10pm, which gave us two hours to eat and leave. It reminded me of the Bon Vivant on Thistle Street, which is a placid oasis of calm for much of the week, but at peak times becomes a joyfully chaotic throng of people loading with food and drink before heading off to clubs and parties.
Still, the table we had booked was in a corner, so we managed to get just enough quiet to chat merrily while the heart of Saturday night unfolded around us. The staff also went out of their way to make the best of it for us, chatting to the kids and generally being exactly as efficient and friendly as they had been when the place was sparsely populated on our previous visit.
If we were happily catching up, all around us people were having a riot of an evening. We were lucky enough to sample their excellent cocktails on our last visit (try the punchy Red Fairy, which combines Absinthe with strawberry and elderflower, or the cooling Calvados & Hobbes, made up of calvados, lavender syrup and apple juice) and it looked as if everyone in the place had got well and truly stuck in.
Often, cocktail bars like Bond No 9 neglect the food, but this is a place that seems to have got a decent balance, and all around we could see and hear fellow diners’ positive verdicts on their food. Certainly, it was clear from the most cursory glance at the well-balanced, thoughtful and cliché-free menu that the food side of the epicurean equation is not an afterthought.
While Damon went for the chorizo cooked in cider and served with wholemeal bread, I started with the hake and sea trout tom yum udon noodle broth, while the kids went for the pork ribs in chilli and sweet soy sauce off the “light bites” menu and the warm pulled pork and mini vegetable pancakes. The results were as standard as the ingredients were varied, with the pulled pork an undoubted success, the good-quality chorizo proving slightly oily but crumbling beautifully, while the pork ribs disappeared at warp speed. My hake and sea trout tom yum noodles proved to be a surprisingly small serving, but was still enjoyable: small chunks of fish and a warming broth made for the perfect antidote to the autumnal weather we’d just left behind.
Our main courses were solid too, especially Damon’s perfectly cooked pan-seared hake with sautéed potatoes, spinach and an olive and tomato salad. My pork loin, which had been marinated in soy sauce, chilli and ginger and came with a sweet potato mash and baked courgette, was wonderfully tender but what looked to be an enormous slab of meat turned out to be almost 50 per cent fat; surely it would have been better to have simply removed it before serving. The boys opted for the particularly succulent beef burger and baked camembert with parma ham and roasted peppers from the pub grub selection, and for a brief moment we inhabited the only quiet corner of the whole place.
Pudding sounded great but was mildly disappointing, with my raisin and Armagnac crème brûlée proving more bland and less silky than I’d hoped. Still, the kids’ brownies and ice cream went down a storm.
Despite the unpromising start, the whole meal was one I’d happily repeat. The list of pluses – which is everything from excellent service, good cocktails and main courses that were barely more than a tenner – far outweighed the downsides. And in virtually any other circumstances, that joyfully noisy and ebullient atmosphere would actually be one further compelling reason to visit, rather than a drawback.
BOND No 9
84 Commercial Street, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6LX (0131 555 5578, www.bondno9.co.uk)
Starters £3.50-£5.50 Main courses £7.50-£16.90 Puddings £4.50-£5.50 (cheeseboard: £6.50)