REGULAR readers will know of this column’s devotion to good pub grub, as demonstrated by the fact that we tend to shower any aspiring but competent gastropublicans with praise and encouragement.
Caley Sample Rooms
42-58 Angle Park Terrace, Edinburgh (0131-337 7204, www.thecaleysampleroom.co.uk)
Starters £3.95-£5.50. Main courses £8.95-£17.95. Puddings £4.50-£4.75 (cheese £5.95). Set menu (Mon-Wed evenings) two courses £10.95, three courses £13.95
Thankfully, while there remains a parlous shortage of genuinely good establishments, the numbers are growing steadily but unmistakeably, with green shoots springing up from Angus to the Black Isle, and from Skye and Loch Lomond to the Borders and beyond.
Yet Edinburgh and its immediate surroundings remain the area with by far the greatest concentration of truly memorable pubs with grub. Indeed, it’s now easy to rattle off at least a dozen places in and around the city that you’d happily recommend for real ale-loving foodies, which represents huge progress from those dark days back in the mists of time when I was first allowed into pubs, when the best you could often hope for was an incinerated bridie.
If there’s one place that is emblematic of this gradual shift to the sunlit uplands of foodiedom, it’s the Caley Sample Rooms, which has started to come to wider attention and now features on London newspapers’ annual pre-Festival list of the top-ten pubs in Auld Reekie.
As the name and its proximity to the Caledonian Brewery suggests, this place started life as a beer-only bastion but has since well and truly spread its wings and was rightly a runner-up for pub of the year at last year’s Scottish Restaurant Awards.
The last time I ate there was last summer when I went to see Masterchef winner Tim Anderson strut his stuff while the team from the Black Isle brewers matched his food to a succession of their beers. I’m not sure if that format really worked (mainly because I’m like most people and am quite specific about what beers I like, so struggled with some of the more eccentric choices) but it showed an admirable commitment to food and a willingness to innovate that warmed this jaded old heart.
Over the years the Caley Sample Rooms has become a useful fallback, particularly for Sunday lunch when it continues to serve from 11am in the morning right through to 10pm in the evening. Although this sort of flexibility is increasingly becoming the norm, it’s easy to forget it was once very unusual indeed to be able to order a late lunch at 4pm, even in Edinburgh.
Happily, and despite the fact that there is always a good atmosphere and plenty of diners and drinkers in attendance, it generally seems possible to get a table (unless Hearts are playing at home or there’s a Scotland match on at Murrayfield).
This is partly because it’s slightly out of the way, and with no obvious places to park, but also because the place looks mildly shabby from the outside, an impression not exactly countered by the fact that there are always a couple of nicotine addicts puffing away by the front door.
In this case, however, appearances are very deceptive. Inside it is comfortable and cosy, despite the fact it is able to squeeze in 150 diners. Although the accent is now on food, with a smarter carpeted restaurant area, it is still distinctly pubby. That sense is reinforced by the huge number of beers and wines on display – there were almost 50 different beers and nearly as many wines, most of which seemed to be available by the glass.
There’s also a specials board, although we decided to ignore it in deference to a Sunday lunchtime menu which seemed perfectly formed. I decided to start with the eggs Benedict from the brunch menu, while Bea went for the haggis filo parcel with pearl barley and whisky cream from the a la carte, both of which were fine without pulling up any trees. My eggs Benedict was large, with two eggs, but was otherwise mixed because while the Parma ham was of excellent quality and the hollandaise was spot-on, neither egg had a runny yolk and the amount of hollandaise was ridiculously parsimonious (a teaspoon at most).
Bea’s filo pastry was good, and the haggis was moist without being cloying. This time there was no shortage of sauce, although the taint of whisky which she’d been promised was so faint as to be almost undetectable. A half- decent starter for a cold January Sunday afternoon, but judgment was still being reserved.
Her main course of ‘Piggy Black’ sausages from Crombie’s, which were served with black pudding mash and sauerkraut, was more impressive. The sausages had a curiously sweet yet pleasant taste, and combined with the mash and the sauerkraut to make a great comfort food dish. So, too, did my excellent sun-blushed tomato and polenta stack, which was served with a glazed goat’s cheese, pesto and parsnip crisp – this turned out to be nice and light, yet packed with flavour thanks to the collision of the goats’ cheese and sun-blushed tomatoes.
We rounded off with two disappointing desserts. Bea’s homemade black cherry ice-cream sundae looked fantastically old-school but contained possibly the blandest ice-cream I’ve ever tasted, while I got half-way through my insanely sweet banoffee pie before I gave up the fight and called it a day.
For all of that, though, this was an enjoyable meal in great surroundings. The experience was also enhanced by the fact that our waiters were extremely competent and friendly, and showed a genuine depth of knowledge when it came to the beer and wine.
Nor did the whole experience cost a fortune: most of the starters are under a fiver and, with the exception of the steak, the most expensive main courses – including the signature fish pie and deli boards – came in at £11.50. It’s little wonder that the place has become one of Edinburgh’s most popular and successful gastropubs.