IF THE police and teachers are getting younger by the day, so too are chefs. It is difficult to believe Michael Neave, a runner-up as Scotland’s young chef of the year in 2010, is just 21, or that the lad who served his apprenticeship in his father’s kitchens now has his own restaurant. And a very grown-up restaurant it is.
Several of the most feted chefs in Edinburgh have succeeded by making a success of spaces that had been home to serial failure – Tom Kitchin, Dominic Jack and Paul Wedgwood all spring to mind – and Neave has adopted the same approach by taking over the troubled former home of Mai Thai, halfway down Old Fishmarket Close. Midway between the Royal Mile and the Grassmarket, it is on a steep, cobbled hill that is difficult enough to navigate when at all wet; when icy it’s going to need crampons.
The building itself, however, remains one of gastronomic Edinburgh’s hidden gems. It’s a modern, Grand Designs-style cube that remains little altered since the days of Mai Thai – mainly because there was no need to change it significantly. Apart from the presence of some new Renato Guttuso artwork, the only other big change is the devotion of the first floor to a contemporary and slightly airport-lounge-style whisky bar serving a veritable legion of malts, including the glorious 30-year-old Glenfarclas at £15.25 a nip. At least this will keep the whisky-chaser crowd at bay.
The main theatre of operations is downstairs. Reached by a wood and chrome staircase, and with a half-enclosed private dining space on the far wall, this remains one of the best spaces in Edinburgh. Indeed, if it were full, the place would be a positive joy – sadly, business remains fitful and this isn’t yet the case.
We wondered whether the patchy numbers of fellow diners was because of the food or the hill, so set to finding out as quickly as possible. There was certainly nothing wrong with the fresh, home-made, olive-studded bread or the excellent unsalted butter that accompanied it, while the service from our young waiter was achingly earnest, helpful and professional (they could do with changing the 1980s Now That’s What I Call Music CD, though, much as an old codger like me loves a bit of early Spandau Ballet and Heaven 17 once in a while).
If the music wasn’t much to our liking, the menu definitely was. Vicky’s starter of scallops accompanied by celeriac purée, thin-cut fried black pudding and caviar butter had her nodding her head in approval. Combining scallops and black pudding is hardly novel, but the quality shone through while the addition of a thick celeriac paste and the caviar made this feel like a bold, opulent start to proceedings.
Sadly, my starter pulled us up short. I had ordered what was described as a chicken and tarragon parfait, precisely because it wasn’t a chicken liver parfait (much as I love this, I was looking to see what Neave could do). However, a chicken liver parfait was exactly what I got, and it was also accompanied by a macadamia nut and red pepper coulis, which was sufficiently strident that it completely overawed the parfait. Eaten alone, the parfait was perfectly fine, but presumably that wasn’t what Neave had in mind.
The sauce issue reared its head again as soon as our main courses arrived. Vicky’s roasted duck breast was nicely cooked and came with an excellent herb rosti and honey-glazed carrots, but it also came with a lemon sauce so unbelievably overpowering that – certainly initially – it made anything it touched virtually inedible. We each tasted a small amount of the sauce on its own and recoiled at the sheer intensity of its bitterness; this was more lemony than lemons. From then on, Vicky patiently scraped away the all vestiges of sauce like an archaeologist excavating an ancient artefact – and was rewarded by uncovering what would otherwise have been a more than passable main course.
The pattern of good dish, bad dish from our starters was continued by my main course of sea bass fillets with crab and crayfish, which was an interesting and enticing option that was both well conceived and well executed. With two nicely cooked fillets of white fish and a pile of crab and crayfish alongside a warm potato salad, this was a dish that more than passed muster.
We rounded off with two puddings that were so divergent it’s difficult to believe they were the work of the same chef. Vicky’s plum soufflé was so good she nibbled it for ages, every so often sniffing the sweet, subtle wafts that came from the centre of the lilac soufflé. It was, she said, as good as any pudding she had eaten all year.
My pudding, though, was a 20-vehicle car crash in the fast lane of the M8. I had ordered the sea buckthorn and rose petal parfait with orange blossom jelly, and was presented with a dish so bitter and tangy that it was virtually inedible. As a stupid teenager, I once took a load of snuff for a bet, and the sea buckthorn in this dessert had exactly the same effect: ripples of pain shot into the cerebral cortex of my skull as my face contorted like the young girl in the Haribo television advert when she eats the bitterest sweet of all. Amazed, I struggled gamely on before finally admitting defeat.
Just as I did so, the same pudding was delivered to the table next to us, eliciting exactly the same tortured reaction from its recipient; one mouthful was enough for him, as it was for his two friends. My, how we all laughed. Memo to Neave: stop with the unfeasibly tart sauces.
That said, we left with a palpable sense that if he can sort out the more eccentric and outlandish fripperies, Neave could well make his eponymous restaurant a huge success. Even though it’s down a difficult-to-navigate hill, the environment is spot-on, the service good, the prices sensible and most of the basics – nicely al dente vegetables and well-cooked meat – are in place.
This said, while the self-confidence to set up on his own at such a young age is to be applauded, Neave would also do well to remember Benedick’s line from Much Ado About Nothing: “A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.” Michael Neave Kitchen & Whisky Bar
21 Old Fishmarket Close, Edinburgh (0131-226 4747, www.michaelneave.co.uk)
Starters £5.50-£9.95 Main courses £12.75-£16.95 Puddings £5.95-£6.95 Cheese £8.95) Rating