FIRST impressions count, and nowhere has that been brought home to me more forcefully than when I visited The Birdcage.
Formerly The Glasshouse – which shut down over three years ago – this idiosyncratic little restaurant grabs your attention as soon as you approach it, then holds it tight.
As you arrive, it provides an assault on the senses, which comes mainly from the fact that the back end of the building is a futuristic glass cube which allows the light to flood in and gives diners a 180-degree view of the huge courtyard in which it’s sited. In that way it is similar to the black cube that is St Andrews’ Seafood Restaurant, or to the stunning greenhouse-effect conjured up by Chaophraya in Edinburgh. But where that pair are sited next to two of the most famous, historic streets in Scotland, the immediate impact you feel when you enter The Birdcage also comes from the juxtaposition of drab and dreary semi-suburban surroundings and the remarkable transformation as the place itself is unveiled.
The restaurant is reached by winding your way through Musselburgh then turning off into an unprepossessing industrial street alongside the River Esk via a roundabout installed primarily to service a big supermarket and a petrol station. So far, so unpromising – and that’s before you draw up into a car park dominated by a Jobcentre that has clearly seen better days.
At this stage there is no hint of the hidden treasure to come, but as soon as you walk around the corner of the former Victorian cotton mill and fishing net factory that houses The Birdcage, you enter a beautiful quadrangle. This is flanked on the left and right by single-storey sandstone buildings, with the towering, stentorian Lowry-esque former mill building dominating the far end. Arriving at lunchtime with the sun at its peak, the whole effect was captivating.
Once inside, the impact is maintained. You are looking out on historic buildings but there’s also a palpable sense of the new; of being in a high-ceilinged edifice constructed largely of glass, chrome and iron. Then, once we had moved through the bar and been seated in the restaurant at the back of the building, our attention moved quickly from the views to the menu.
At first sight, the list of dishes was every bit as edifying as the surroundings. Simple, contemporary and geographically diverse, there looked to be something for everyone, with options as varied as pad thai spring rolls or pan-seared catfish to massaman beef curry or asparagus and flat-mushroomed frittata. Not only that, but the majority of starters were under a fiver and almost half the main courses under a tenner.
I started with the lamb kofta on crisp flat bread with hummus dressing, while Rachel went for the baked borlotti beans in a roast tomato ragout with sour dough toast. This was probably the better of the two dishes, full of deep, rich flavours, with the beans infused with the roast tomatoes.
Having spent a good deal of time in Turkey, where kofta – balls of minced or ground lamb – is a staple of the diet, I jumped at the chance of trying this and while I wasn’t blown away, nor was I inordinately disappointed. There should probably have been more hummus dressing and less rocket, but the kofta themselves were good, and came on lovely, fresh unleavened bread which wasn’t crisp but which was probably all the better for that.
My main course was less than impressive though. I like big, strong flavours, but the rich chilli sauce that accompanied my teriyaki beef noodles was so overpowering and oversalted, finishing the dish became something of a feat of endurance (which I failed) despite the presence of some succulent strips of fillet beef. Rachel was a little happier with her baked curried mullet, mainly because it turned out to be edible. That said, her mullet was conspicuously uncurried and looked as though it had been incinerated, although it turned out to be fine once the parched skin had been peeled away. As for the accompaniments, these were better than fine, with Rachel admitting she’d have been perfectly happy to have eaten the spicy crushed peas, fondant potato, cucumber and mint yoghurt, and salsa-style dressing all on their own.
The pudding menu was short and, well, sweet, but the dessert I chose packed a surprisingly hefty punch. I could have sidestepped the pretty ordinary raspberry sorbet, while the home-made oatmeal cookie was good, but the large beaker of honey and whisky parfait was a revelation: less a parfait than a sort of extremely dense and extraordinarily alcoholic crème brûlée, this singular pudding was worth the admission price alone. Rachel finished off with the cheeseboard, which included healthy helpings of some commendably ripe dolcelatte and brie alongside what looked like shop-bought oatcakes.
There was much to like about The Birdcage and little to actively dislike (although the double-sided banquettes in the window tables were so light they shuddered every time the person behind you shifted even slightly). The service was efficient if occasionally difficult to understand, and the food, although rarely inspiring, generally consisted of pretty decent bistro-style offerings. Throw in surroundings that are enjoyable and unique, and The Birdcage stands more than a fighting chance of succeeding where its predecessor The Glasshouse sadly failed.
Station Road, Eskmills
Musselburgh (0131-273 5240)
Starters £3.95-£5.95 Main courses £8.95-17.95 Puddings £5.45 (cheeseboard £7.45) Rating