FOR Edinburghers of a certain vintage, the sight of the Raeburn House Hotel in Stockbridge sitting derelict and empty has been a crying shame.
112 Raeburn Place, Stockbridge, Edinburgh EH4 1HG
Main courses £12-£28 (steaks £22-£29) Puddings £5-£6
For some it was just a sad eyesore, for others it’s been a source of sad wonderment that a bar that was once at the heart of a community has been allowed to moulder and atrophy in plain sight. For generations of Stockbridgers, rugby players and posh boys, pints at The Raeburn were – like the nearby and long forgotten Shambles – once a rite of passage for the only-just-underage, a student-free place where countless Edinburgh fortysomethings once cut their drinking teeth.
The impressive recent renovation and expansion of the B-Listed Raeburn House has been almost universally welcomed. Taken with the opening last year of Tom Kitchin’s excellent gastropub and the refreshingly laid-back tapas-style Rollo, it means that there is now a flourishing gastronomic quarter, which will expand further if the nearby Raeburn Place redevelopment includes a café and perhaps a restaurant or two.
If the reaction to The Raeburn is any guide, there is plenty of appetite in the area for more bars and restaurants. It was packed on the night we visited. The whole place has been completely revamped in a contemporary style and is now almost unrecognisable from the faded grandeur of the old boozer that once serviced Stockbridge. A big, open-plan bar leads on to a lovely covered terrace that looks right on to the rugby pitches, providing one of the nicest outside areas in Edinburgh even if it seems to have been colonised by smokers.
If instead of turning left to go to the terrace you turn right, you’ll find yourself in an inviting 80-cover restaurant, a darkened space partly lit by two large and ornate sash windows at the end of the room. We soon discovered a design flaw, however: the entrance to the toilets for those people using the terrace is in the middle of the restaurant, and as we were seated next to the entrance to the loos; our meal was punctuated by a steady stream of drinkers wandering past. There were several empty tables at the window end of the room, where this wouldn’t be an issue, so I’d advise prospective diners to request a berth at that end.
The centrepiece of the menu is the quartet of steaks, which is hardly surprising given that the owners have invested in a Josper grill. Apart from that, the menu is an eclectic mix of what is best described as contemporary Scottish, with starters such as home cured and smoked trout, and then main courses like cod, white onion purée, purple sprouting broccoli and chorizo.
Nevertheless, Bea and I both took ages to find something we liked. While I eventually chose the pork terrine over the sweet potato and chickpea fritters, Bea plumped for a ceviche of shellfish which came with avocado, tomato, lime and Sardinian crispbread. Both were decidedly average. My terrine was the better of the two, but its texture was more like that of meatloaf than terrine: loosely packed, coarse and ground meat, rather than the tightly-packed consistency of a terrine.
There was absolutely no issue with the size of the portion, though, which is more than can be said for Bea’s starter. This took minimalism to a whole new level: small doesn’t cover the portion size of a starter that disappeared in a couple of mouthfuls. Sure it tasted fresh and interesting, but when there’s so little and it’s so artlessly presented, flavour becomes a secondary consideration.
Our main courses were equally problematic if, thankfully, more substantial. Bea’s charred monkfish tail, which came with spicy aubergine purée and tomato sauce, was unmistakably overcooked and had lost all of the bouncy, meaty texture that is the hallmark of fresh, well-cooked monkfish. The peripherals of my Jacob’s Ladder – the thick red wine gravy, the smoked mash potato with shallots, carrots and bacon – were fine, but once again it was the main attraction that let the side down with beef that was both overdone and fatty. The fact that the menu didn’t give any explanation of the term Jacob’s Ladder (short beef ribs) is also a silly affectation.
If all of that makes this sound like some disastrous experience, then that would be far from the truth. With the exception of the toilet traffic, the surroundings were really conducive to a great dining out experience, the prices of the main courses in particular were pretty sensible, and for every member of the waiting staff that was hesitant and under-informed, there were two who were conspicuously slick. When the place gets over the teething problems in the kitchen and reappraises its menu – as its neighbour Rollo has done to great effect – then it could well live up to the hype.
Sadly, just how far The Raeburn currently is from that status was confirmed by our pudding course. Bea had the roasted pineapple carpaccio, which was exactly the same dish she had at Malmaison in Dundee a couple of weeks previously and the difference could not have been more stark. Suffice to say the flaccid, undersized, poorly presented portion at The Raeburn suffered badly by comparison. Thankfully the same wasn’t true of my lemon posset. A fail-safe pudding when things are going badly, and this was a great example: tart, with a dense, silky texture and more than a mouthful, it was encouraging to be able to finish my meal on a rare high. I just wish there had been more of them.