A decade ago, two of my colleagues lived next door to the Sheep Heid Inn. They hated the place: it was, they said, dark and unwelcoming (particularly to locals), and the food was almost uniquely unappetising. As one of the nearest pubs to my office, I had witnessed this first-hand, but my workmates were undaunted and forever urging me to review the place in the barely disguised hope that I would hate it and give it a thorough, ocean-going dressing-down.
STAR RATING: 5/10
As this column’s first priority is to try to find places that are worth trying rather than those that need avoiding, I always found a heap of reasons to stymie them and to dodge the place that styles itself as Scotland’s oldest pub (although the current building doesn’t date back to 1360, it is on the site of the inn that became famous as the stopping-off point between Craigmillar Castle and Holyrood Palace for Mary Queen of Scots and her son James VI, whose present of a ram’s head snuff box gave the inn its name). In fact, virtually the only reason I went back was for company Christmas parties, which made use of the fantastic old skittles alley at the back of the pub, occasions on which beer and chips were the order of the day.
So it was with a heavy heart that I agreed to meet for Sunday lunch at the Sheep Heid when my niece, who is now in her first year at Edinburgh University, suggested it for a family get-together. I hadn’t been for at least three or four years. I had heard rumours of significant change, but still had pretty low expectations. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised at the change: the upstairs has been completely revamped and was a hubbub of activity; downstairs was still fairly dark but had been given a going-over too. The service was painfully slow, but then the place was a mob scene of students and their visiting parents, so I decided to give it a go midweek, so the experience might be more representative.
We had eaten upstairs on the Sunday but moved down to the main area on the ground floor when we revisited. Even though we were looking out over the beer garden, with its dark wood and small windows, the whole of this floor is far darker and slightly cavernous. In summer that might be oppressive, but on a cold, rainy winter’s night, the place seemed comfortingly cosy and exactly what was needed for a long, convivial pub dinner.
The midweek menu, which was supplemented by a hefty specials menu, was a mix between pub grub and bistro fare, and certainly pushed all the right buttons. Starters such as pan-fried lamb kidneys and a fish mezze sharing platter showed a commendable range, while the salads and sides looked to have been thoughtfully put together. The prices were far from rock bottom, but then the place has obviously had a significant investment, and on the whole they seemed justifiable.
I started with the haggis en croute, while Bea went for the sautéed Portobello and oyster mushrooms in a marsala cream sauce on toasted ciabatta. Neither of us were particularly impressed. My haggis was a little on the dry side, as was the pastry, which the chef might have just got away with – had there been enough of the peppercorn sauce that accompanied it. Undersized portions of sauce really get my goat, and unfortunately the thimble-sized helping of this intensely flavoured accompaniment was seriously insufficient for the job. Bea’s marsala sauce was also the source of misgivings when it came to her starter. It was just too sweet and overwhelmed the whole dish. I have a very sweet tooth but even I found it overly sugary.
The main courses continued in a similarly disappointing manner, with Bea’s tuna steaks dry and overcooked while the accompanying warm chorizo salad was as bland as this dish could ever be.
Our waiting staff were extremely friendly and helpful, but they seemed to struggle with the sheer weight of work, a fact encapsulated when Bea asked whether, instead of the advertised side dish of French beans, broad beans and peas, she could have just broad beans and was told that she could. What turned up was the three-legume side, as per the menu, and it was overcooked.
My pan-fried sea bass on mushroom risotto was almost fine, but the risotto was overdone and cloying while the fish came in small strips rather than whole fillets. As any restaurateur will tell you, the ability of any kitchen to turn out decent risotto time after time is as good an indicator as you’ll get of its competence, and on this front the Sheep Heid crew failed.
Our puddings were more of the same. My apple and rhubarb crumble featured hard and chewy fruit and a Lilliputian serving of custard, while Bea’s vanilla crème brûlée may have featured a pear poached in red wine but it was brûlée-less and bland.
Our meal rounded off with a half-hour wait for the bill, which pretty much summed up the experience for us. We arrived desperately wanting to enjoy the place, and instantly warmed to the atmosphere, the environment and the menu. It’s clear what the owners are trying to achieve, and they’ve made great strides, as the need to book clearly demonstrates. The only thing missing is some more waiting staff and greater attention to detail from a kitchen that needs to up its game to match the pub’s aspirations. •
The Sheep Heid Inn
43-45 The Causeway, Edinburgh (0131-661 7974, www.thesheepheidedinburgh.co.uk
Starters £4.95-£8.95. Main courses £8.95-£21.95. Puddings: £3-£5.75 Cheese £6.95