‘My apple cake was a car crash. It should never have made it out of the kitchen’
There are a thousand good reasons for lamenting the recent end of what was a glorious Indian summer, but for me one of the most curious was my regret at missing out on the terrace at the Circus Café. I don’t know how I missed this fantastic little courtyard space, especially as it’s a five-minute walk from my old office and there is a chronic shortage of places to drink outside in central Edinburgh, but as soon as I walked through the front doors I cursed lost opportunities and made a mental note to come back next year.
Just a few yards from the Royal Mile, the Circus Cafe is a curious mish-mash of a place. A wooden-floored cafe by day, it has an eclectic array of knick-knacks around the place and walls covered in couthie for-sale paintings of Edinburgh. At the back is the aforementioned paved courtyard, which is half-covered, full of rustic furniture that looks as if it’s been hewn in double quick time from huge oak trees, and surrounded by walls slowly being colonised by ivy. In the evenings, the candles are lit and the lights turned down low as the place metamorphoses into a quietly bohemian little bistro.
The decor is faintly middle eastern and a succession of clues point to a strong Turkish influence. This is particularly true of a menu in which a gamut of overwhelmingly run-of-the-mill dishes such as seafood pasta and salmon fillet sit side-by-side with a handful of classic Turkish specialities. From chatting to our waiter, a pleasant young masters student from the Turkmen provinces of north-eastern Iran, next door to Turkmenistan, where the local dialect is to Turkish as Swedish is to Norwegian, we find that the owner is a Turk.
In a previous life I spent four months hitchhiking around Turkey, exploring every corner of this remarkable country from the distinctly European Edirne on the border with Greece to the exotic Kurdish city of Van in the far eastern corner of the country, within kicking distance of Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In most countries the changing landscape is mirrored in subtle alterations in cuisine depending on the ingredients available, but in Turkey, thanks to decades under the centralising influence of the Ottomans and despite the existence of some regional variations, there is a surprising degree of homogeneity to the food throughout the country.
Virtually all of the most popular Turkish dishes – the yoghurt-laden Iskender kebab or the ubiquitous stuffed tomatoes and peppers of the dolma recipes, for example – were notable by their absence, but there were enough Turkish options for me to order as if I was in Istanbul. First things first, though, and before worrying about the food I started with an Efes beer, which is Turkey’s equivalent of Tennent’s. Some booze doesn’t travel (have you tried Retsina outside of Greece?) but the light, subtle Efes lager appears to be completely transportable. A good omen, surely.
I order a plate of five cigar borek to start. One of the many vegetarian dishes on offer, this version of an Anatolian classic consisted of rolls of filo pastry (“borek” means stuffed pastry, while “cigar” refers to its shape) stuffed with feta cheese and parsley. The best borek are like spicy filo pastry Cornish pasties in that they often contain potato and some form of meat (usually mince) plus vegetables such as spinach or leek. This, however, was far more prosaic; mean almost. Lukewarm, with slightly undercooked pastry and a conspicuous lack of seasoning (even the usual liberal use of black pepper would have helped), these may have been fine if you’d never had genuine borek before, but mediocre if you’re used to the real thing.
Bea was similarly underwhelmed by her starter. She had plumped for the calamari accompanied by a yoghurt cucumber and olive oil sauce, but genuinely questioned the provenance of the super-soft filling inside the clammy batter. We’ve both had squid countless times and were perplexed to find that instead of the slightly rubbery texture of calamari, this seemed more like reconstituted fish. Nor did it help that, as with both starters and main courses, it arrived accompanied by a handful of horribly tired and soggy salad. Neither of us was masochistic enough to eat more than one mouthful.
The meal picked up considerably when it came to our main courses. My generous helping of kofte – marinated balls of beef cooked in tomatoes and herbs – had a faintly spicy edge and, as well as chips, came with a yoghurt sauce that transported me right back to Turkey’s south coast where kofte is the dish of choice.
Bea’s lemon chicken, which consisted of a thin layer of marinated and grilled chicken, was also fine, but simply did what it said on the tin, and was accompanied by another helping of depressingly dismal salad.
Bea’s commendably moist baklava was a good choice for pudding, but my apple cake with a fruit berry and yoghurt sauce was a car crash. Completely overcooked, it should never have made it out of the kitchen.
Circus Cafe’s evening bistro has a long way to go if it is to live up to the bustling daytime cafe, which attracts students, shoppers and plaudits in equal measure. Its prices, for instance, would be fine if the quality of food on offer was up to scratch, but at an average of £7 for starters and £12 for mains, this is too expensive for cost-conscious students, and of insufficient quality for older and more discerning foodies.
What a pity, but then maybe I should just limit myself to a couple of glasses of Efes in the suntrap back courtyard, a prospect which will only grow more inviting over the long dark months to come.
8 St Mary’s Street, Edinburgh EH1 1SU (0131-556 6963)
Starters £5.95-£7.95 Main courses £7.95-£15.95 Puddings £3.45-£3.95