‘None of the Gallic flourishes you might expect – just confident Scottish cooking’
NEIL Forbes is surely one of Scottish restaurant-land’s most appealing characters. As well as running Café St Honoré in the New Town, this passionate chef-patron has a hectic roster of community engagements which makes you wonder how he fits in the more mundane business of bossing the kitchen at his Edinburgh restaurant.
If Forbes isn’t hosting a succession of slow food dinners at Café St Honoré, he’s talking about food on the Beeb, penning a column for The Scotsman, running an allotment at a local university to teach students about horticulture and food production, supporting Edinburgh College’s catering course or talking to schoolchildren in the capital. There is a holistic approach to the business of running his restaurant, which includes a profit share scheme for staff, external placements for chefs and opportunities for local schoolchildren to work in the kitchen.
Perhaps it’s because he comes from a family of chefs and realised that he wanted to follow in the family business when helping his granny make soup as a child, but a love of gastronomy and an appreciation of its rightful place in the grand scheme of things is in the man’s DNA. Forbes, who describes cooking as “an emotional experience that uses all the senses”, talks a lot about the need to put something back into society, but he also backs up that chat. As a chef, he has an almost evangelical zeal for what he does, and was spreading the gospels of seasonality, localism and provenance at a time when most chefs’ idea of ethical sourcing was to pay promptly for the Brake Brothers delivery they ordered every Tuesday morning.
These values have won Forbes the highest accolade possible from the prestigious Sustainable Restaurant Association and underpin the long-term commercial success of this stylish little restaurant. The menu changes daily to reflect the seasons and the availability of produce, which means that regulars never get the crushing sense of déjà vu which might persuade them to go elsewhere. Descriptions of dishes on the menu are peppered with references to the provenance of the ingredients, while the unfailingly cheery staff are conspicuously knowledgeable about the dishes and the well put together wine list which has 16 wines available by the glass. The gluten-free and dairy-free menus are also updated every day.
For those who are unfamiliar with Café St Honoré, it might seem at first that the place is suffering from something of an identity crisis. Hidden down a little cobbled back street between the arteries of George Street and Queen Street, with its French name in Gallic script and a sign for the Rue St Honoré pinned up on the facade, from the outside it looks for all the world like a typical Parisian brasserie. Once inside, that first impression appears to be confirmed: with its black and white floor tiles, wall mirrors, sotto voce lighting and classic starched tablecloths, this intimate 50-cover restaurant looks as if it could have been transported to Auld Reekie from the Fifth Arrondissement.
However, appearances can be deceptive. Although the wine list includes a fair number of French classics as well as some imaginative New World options, the rest of the menu should be labelled Made In Scotland. Whether it’s on the à la carte menu or the cheaper Café Classics set menu, there are none of the Gallic flourishes and Escoffier-esque touches that the environment would suggest. This is modern, confident Scottish cooking using fresh, local ingredients.
A theme was set as soon as the bread arrived – fresh, dense and wholemeal, it’s made on the premises every morning. Our wholesome, almost rustic starters were along the same lines, with substance definitely coming before style. My hefty fishcake, which was about the size of an ice hockey puck, was packed with fish and came with a ring of home-made tartare sauce, which was a good start. So, too, Bea’s caramelised onion and organic Clava cheese tart, which oozed flavour and was presented with a commendable lack of prissiness.
Our main courses were equally solid. Bea chose the whole plaice with lemon and parsley butter and crushed Yetholm Gypsy potatoes, while I went for the Perthshire venison haunch with dauphinoise potatoes, Stornoway black pudding and braised red cabbage. The fish was perfectly cooked and fell off the bones, leaving Bea beaming with pleasure. My thick-cut and unfeasibly tender venison was also beautifully cooked, and a testament to the careful sourcing that is the prerequisite for making a success of what is essentially a pretty straightforward, honest-to-goodness dish. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it’s not: the degree to which the raw ingredients inform the end result was obvious when it came to the black pudding, which was as dense and intensely flavoured as any I’ve tasted.
We rounded off with two puddings from a surprisingly mundane list of the usual suspects which was redeemed by some thoughtful touches. My sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce was a case in point: it was already a very decent example but was elevated by the addition of a gorgeous spiced fruit ice cream which brought memories of Christmases past flooding back. Bea’s vanilla crème brulée was faultless and came with some butter-packed, melt-in-the-mouth ginger and cranberry biscuits.
All in all, this was a pleasurable meal in elegant but understated surroundings which we both enjoyed hugely. Forbes, who seems to have decided against empire-building and is at his restaurant every evening, doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but what he does give you is honesty, integrity and a passion for his craft which shine through in his food.
Café St Honoré
34 North West Thistle Street Lane, Edinburgh EH2 1EA (0131-226 2211,www.cafesthonore.com)
Set menu two courses, £18; three courses, £23.50
Starters £8.50-£9.50 Main courses £15.50-£21.50
Puddings £6.75 (cheeseboard £8.75)