Richard Bath samples the delights of Cannonball, the Contini-owned Caffe and Gelateria on Edinburgh’s Castle Hill
If there is one place a café and restaurant should be virtually guaranteed to succeed, it is surely at Cannonball House. Right next to Edinburgh Castle esplanade, more than two million tourists walk past this building each year, never mind the locals who live within walking distance. It should be like shooting fish in a barrel, and it is a major coup for Victor and Carina Contini that this summer it became home to their third Edinburgh restaurant.
The four-storey, 15th-century building is a former primary school, which now belongs to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and the Continis’ deal includes some of the price of each dish being passed on to support the Tattoo, plus armed forces charities and the arts in Scotland. The place reeks of history, and tales of workmen fleeing in terror from the resident ghost – a girl called Katie who appears wearing Victorian school uniform – only add to the sense of being cheek by jowl with the past.
The Continis have tried to preserve the historic essence of the building, and the central stairwell leading up to the restaurant has the original tiles and feels like a relic from a Victorian school. Large sepia photographs of the Scottish-Italian owners’ family back in the old country add to the ambience.
On the basement floor their gelateria sells a combination of home-made ice-cream and porridge, while on the ground floor the open-plan café retains its antiquated edge, while also being extraordinarily light and airy.
When it comes to the restaurant, the redevelopment has clearly been a little more challenging. Locating the entrance, which is down an alley that curls round behind the building, was tricky, and there is a reasonable climb up the stairs to the restaurant itself (although there is a lift). The room is impressive: with its white tiles, high ceiling and big white orb lights there’s an undeniable sense of space, but the leaded windows are a nice reductionist touch, and overall the feeling is of being in a effortlessly chic Parisian brasserie. Not that most brasseries have views directly onto the esplanade or across to Fife.
The menu is classic Contini: light, healthy and devoid of the heavy creamy sauces that are the staple for so many Scottish chefs. Couthie Caledonian flourishes such as chicken liver parfait soaked in Tobermory 10-year-old whisky and haggis cannonballs co-exist alongside Italian influences like Amalfi lemons, Moretti beer mustard and San Marzano tomatoes. Above all, the provenance of every item is listed with the sort of studied reverence that befits a couple so obsessed with the origins of their raw ingredients that they personally rescued and revamped an ancient East Lothian walled garden to guarantee the organic authenticity of their fruit and vegetables supply.
Bea started with a large bowl of outstandingly intense creamed spinach and nutmeg soup with smoked pancetta and a poached free-range egg, and was pleasantly surprised. My Eyemouth crab open lasagne – basically a flattened piece of ravioli topped with a muted Isle of Mull Cheddar cream sauce – was disappointingly small, yet more than atoned with an array of clean, fresh flavours.
Bea’s main course of chargrilled venison with the Continis’ home-grown blackcurrants and local chanterelle mushrooms was fine on paper, but the venison was significantly overcooked. My grouse breasts were supposed to come with a Contini Corvina red wine jus, as well as blackberries and roasted beetroot, and while the grouse was competently cooked, the jus was absent. This was a sparse, pared-down dish that felt healthy rather than decadent.
We rounded off with two solid puddings, Bea opting for a smooth crema cotta with blackcurrants, while I wolfed down a decent pear and blackberry crumble with Chantilly cream.
So does it work? There are teething problems. Finding the restaurant is sufficiently difficult that a member of staff was downstairs directing the traffic, while the lack of a door upstairs means that if you’re unlucky to be in the way of the gale that blows into the restaurant from the stairwell you’ll need the perseverance and constitution of Shackleton to survive. And the prices are feisty – in the absence of a set menu, our standard midweek meal came in at £100 including service.
Yet there is much to like too: the classic Contini cuisine, the unfailingly professional service and the unique surroundings should all ensure that the venture – which I suspect will rely predominantly on its gelateria and café – will be a success. How could it not be when you have a track record of success and more than 5,000 people a day walking past your door?
Victor & Carina Contini Caffe & Gelateria, Cannonball House, 356 Castlehill, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2NE (0131-225 1550 www.contini.com/contini-caffe)
Starters £6-£14 Main courses £14-£24