LESS than an hour south of Edinburgh on the A68, Lauder has always made a good place for a laid-back meal if you feel the need to get out of the city but don’t want to head all the way down to the heart of the Borders.
Sometimes we’ve tried the Buccleuch Arms at St Boswells, ten minutes down the road, and the Sun Inn in Dalkeith is also a good Sunday lunch venue, notwithstanding the hordes of wee ones who infest the place at peak hours. For ages, the Black Bull in Lauder was the best bet in town, but at various stages it went from being a really good gastropub to being a bit of a basket case and then back again. Apparently it’s on an up at the moment and well worth a visit.
For the past 18 months, however, friends in the area have been mentioning a new restaurant that has been building up a steady local following. From everything I was told about Mambo Italiano Bistro it was easy to paint a picture of one of those fiercely local restaurants like the Deil’s Cauldron in Comrie or Coltman’s in Peebles that, despite being right on the main street, is populated almost exclusively by people who live within ten minutes. Just to reinforce the point, it doesn’t even have a website, preferring instead to rely on Facebook.
As soon as we walked through the door on a wet Wednesday evening to find the place almost full and a buzz of happy chatter in the air, it was clear we hadn’t been misled. Mambo Italiano Bistro is a family affair masterminded by chef/patron Sergio Eneide, but it has all the hallmarks of an Italian that isn’t just the usual pizza and pasta emporium. Instead, with a healthy number of specials, and a menu that seemed to go on forever, even had Sergio not told us that his family come from Diano Marina on the Italian riviera, there were enough segues from the usual Italian clichés to suggest that this is a proper Italian local.
Back in a former life, Bea lived for a short while in Umbria, so she started with an old favourite in arancini, the Sicilian dish in which rice balls halfway between a golf ball and tennis ball in size are filled with ground beef, garlic, onion and peas before being coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried, and then served with tomato sauce. Her two, hugely filling arancini were pretty decent examples of the dish, being not too dry and not overly fried so that the breadcrumbs overcooked. She was slightly shocked by the sheer size of the two orbs, but nevertheless enjoyed the trip down memory lane.
Although it certainly wasn’t designed for the purpose, my salsiccia e fagioli, which consisted of slices of Italian sausage cooked with borlotti beans, onions, tomatoes, garlic and rosemary, was perfect for a dark winter’s night in the Borders. Essentially a sliced sausage casserole with cheese melted into the tomato-based gravy, this was warming, creamy fare that got the meal off to a good start and which I’d happily order again.
I’m not so sure the same can be said about my salmon in a lemon sauce, mainly because the sauce was simultaneously intensely lemony and tart, while also being mildly cloying and sweet, so it utterly overwhelmed the taste of the salmon. While Bea and I debated the dish’s merits (she liked it, I was lukewarm) we both agreed that we loved the accompanying gorgeous selection of dauphinoise-style potatoes and a side order of ratatouille-style vegetables that featured peppers and aubergines.
Bea’s main course of spaghetti alla pescatora was classic trattoria fare, but her plate of spaghetti with squid, mussels, octopus and king prawns was well cooked and packed with shellfish, and it was also one of the bigger bowls of pasta you’ll find. We had, in fairness, been forewarned about the bistro’s industrial-sized portions, and if there’s one thing you can say without fear of contradiction about a meal at Mambo, it’s that you won’t ever need to pop into the chippy for a poke of chips on the way home.
Any tiny chance that this may have been the case was dispelled by two puddings which had us waddling out to the car for the return journey. Bea chose the enjoyable coppa amarena, which consisted of vanilla ice-cream with crushed meringues and amarena cherries, while I went for a decidedly average and stodgy tiramisu which didn’t even have the benefit of being booze-laden, a characteristic which has rescued countless other average versions of the dish.
All in all, this was an enjoyable meal in an unpretentious, smallish local restaurant packed with people who were clearly enjoying their evening. OK, so the prices were around ten per cent higher than a city centre equivalent and the service wasn’t lightning quick, but the quality of the chat from our waiter and the substantial portions of rustic food went a long way to atoning for both shortcomings. n