LIKE a doctor who gets asked to diagnose embarrassing health problems at dinner parties, or a sport masseuse I know who is asked to sort out twinges in inappropriate venues virtually every day of her life, being asked to name your favourite restaurant is an occupational hazard for anyone who has the privilege of writing about food.
54 Shore, Leith, Edinburgh (0131-553 3557, www.martin-wishart.co.uk)
Seven-course taster menu and fish taster menu £75 (£130 with paired wines)
Vegetarian taster menu £70
Three-course à la carte £70
Lunch £28.50 (Tues-Fri)
It’s an impossible question to answer, of course, because where you like eating depends on so many factors – who you’re eating with, what the weather is like, how you’re feeling, and how much cash you’ve got in your pocket are just some of the many variables.
Still, it doesn’t stop the question coming. I love chatting about grub, and never find it a chore, but I’ve been interrogated on the subject so often, I now have a list of 30 or so Edinburgh restaurants of all styles and prices that I once compiled for foodie friends from London visiting for a week that I now regularly fire off to friends and family looking for a steer on where to eat.
Sitting on the fence doesn’t come naturally though, so if pushed for long enough I usually end up giving an answer to the “what’s the best...” question, and that answer is Martin Wishart. His brasserie The Honours is the only restaurant in well over 500 reviews of Scottish restaurants to which I’ve ever given ten out of ten, but it’s his Leith restaurant that has always done it for me since its opening in 1999, to the point where I’ve long been bemused at the fact that he still hasn’t gained that elusive second Michelin star which he so surely merits.
I’ve heard all the counter-arguments from friends who disagree, and sometimes they have a point: his portions can be so meagre that you feel like piling into a fish supper on the way home, the place is pretty starchy and formal, and the brand of syncopated freeform jazz that sometimes makes it on to the sound system is enough to make a grown man weep. But if I’m asked a personal question about my personal preferences, then as a reluctant Francophile and guilty devotee of ridiculously rich food, if my sole criterion is the quality of what appears on my plate, then for me no culinary experience chimes more perfectly with my own preferences than a night out with Wishart’s trademark of gloriously intense, percussive flavours.
So, three years after my last visit, my recent pilgrimage to his eponymous Leith restaurant was an eagerly awaited outing. The sense of anticipation was heightened by the fact that Bea had never been, although she’s listened to so many of my hyperbolic descriptions that it must sometimes have felt as if she had. Still, it was helpful to have a pair of fresh eyes and an unbiased palate in attendance.
Given that the three-course à la carte menu (£70) is almost as expensive as the seven-course taster and fish taster menus (£75), ordering was a fairly straightforward exercise, with Bea plumping for the fish, shellfish and crustacean tasting menu while I opted for the full taster menu. We did, however, baulk at the cost of the taster menu with wine (£130 per person), preferring instead to order glasses of the house Sancerre and Malbec.
My meal started well enough with a simple seasonal dish of Lodge Farm green asparagus, served with Ewan Donaldson’s smoked Orkney ham, parmesan and a smear of bone marrow whose texture was a nice meaty counterpoint to the fresh, subtle flavours of the asparagus. My next dish of roast Orkney scallop with puy lentils and pig’s trotter was, though, far lighter than anticipated, with the lentils relying on their natural peppery taste rather than any augmentation.
By the time I got to the ceviche of Gigha halibut with mango and passion fruit, however, I was beginning to get a little concerned. Sure, my first two dishes were light, fresh, masterfully presented and technically flawless, but while I’d hesitate to use the word bland, there seemed to be a stark absence of the raw, concentrated knock-you-back-in-your-seat flavours with which the celebrated chef is usually associated. Thankfully the halibut was everything you’d expect from Wishart, with the firm chunks of fish fighting to be heard above the stridency of their fruity accompaniment; undoubtedly the best dish of my meal.
Across the table, Bea was suffering from none of the misgivings that were clouding my mind. Her Kilbrannan langoustines with peas, violet garlic, vadouvan and sweet pepper juice was a beautifully judged revelation, while her grilled Orkney scallop with morels, artichoke, broad beans and black truffle demonstrated Wishart’s undoubted ability to fuse diverse flavours to devastating effect. If they were light, subtle dishes, the next course – mackerel in a citrus and ginger broth with pickled radish – not only reminded her of home but hit her palate like a sledgehammer, the meaty texture of this most underrated fish combining gorgeously with the acidity of the citrus and the tartness of the radish. She was equally taken with her Shetland monkfish, which was served with confit tomato, Sardinian sheep’s cheese, verjus and crispy shallot, while her final fish course of steamed fillet of North Atlantic cod with a Provençale vinaigrettes was a dish whose austerity allowed the flavours of the perfectly cooked cod to take centre stage.
Across on my side of the table things had perked up after the halibut. The classic Alsacienne pizza-style dish of flammkuchen (or tarte flambée now that the province speaks French), came with flavour-packed slivers of crispy ox tongue, while the muscular potency of the 36-month-old Comte cheese added the sort of cheekbone-tingling intensity I’d come for. My final savoury course of Goosnargh duck with morels and golden beetroot was perfectly cooked, although it did pale by comparison with the flammkuchen from which my taste buds were still readjusting.
A meal which had started slowly ended with a bang as I rounded off with the Valrhona caramelia chocolate cremeux with a passion fruit sorbet, while Bea luxuriated in a faultless tonka bean brûlée with a rhubarb compote, blackcurrant sorbet and sable breton.
As we left we struggled to draw any coherent conclusions. Bea certainly rated her fish taster menu as a unfettered triumph, while mine had been more of a roller coaster ride of fulfilment and mild disappointment. Perhaps I’d expected too much; it can certainly happen. But at least we weren’t tempted by the fish supper option on the way home.