IT’S funny, you think you know virtually every nook and cranny of a city’s culinary landscape, and then all of a sudden someone who has been here for what seems like five minutes – in this case my niece, who’s a second-year Edinburgh University student – unveils somewhere I’d never even heard of before.
Under The Stairs, 3a Merchant St, Edinburgh EH1 2QD
Starters £3.95-£6.10; Main courses £8.50-£15.95; Puddings £5
In fairness, it’s pretty easy to miss Under The Stairs. With minimal signage, and hidden away in a basement off Candlemaker Row in the Old Town, to call this bohemian little cocktail bar-cum-restaurant low-profile doesn’t do the concept of flying under the radar justice. Owners Debs and Gav have largely relied on word of mouth to spread news of their existence, with the nearby concentration of students helping them along the way. While there was a fairly mixed crowd eating there on the evening we visited, if aforementioned niece is to be believed, in university term-time the place is packed with the poor young loves, with a smattering of parents dragged along whenever possible to pick up the bill.
It’s easy to see why the young ’uns are drawn to the place. With its carefully mismatched furniture, sea of candles in pint pots, art exhibits from the local Little Ox gallery and a gleaming bar promising cocktails as exotic as beetroot and wasabi margaritas, the place has an endearingly but carefully constructed homespun quality. The menu is interesting, experimental and, best of all, cheap – half of the mains are under a tenner and, apart from the steak, the most expensive dish is £13.50.
Things were adding up quite well so far. Interesting and comfortable surroundings? Check. A menu that guarantees you won’t need to take out a mortgage to pay the bill? Check. A drinks list that’s longer than your arm and that includes off-beat cocktails, booze from artisan brewers and small-scale distillers, and surprisingly interesting wines? Check. Oh, and the studenty staff, far from being patronising and aloof like the notoriously uninterested airheads at several places staffed predominantly by students, were friendly and informative, even if Bea thought they all looked a little too cool for school.
But any restaurant is only as good as its food. The menu looked promising, with lots of left-field options plus a hefty proportion of vegetarian dishes. Bea started with the mozzarella and smoked Lancashire cheese croquettes with chilli jam while I had the pea and bacon fritters with beetroot pickle and salad. The results were mixed. My three ping pong ball-sized fritters were more like haggis bon bons, but with lots of pea and little discernible taste of ham. While the combination with the shredded, pickled beetroot injected a commendably jarring note to the whole ensemble, it was still a little on the bland side. Bea’s cheese croquettes looked surprisingly similar to my fritters, but were a couple of notches up the taste intensity scale. There was also a juxtaposition of flavours, with the smokiness of the two melted cheeses clashing enjoyably with the chilli sauce. Still, there was no doubt that this felt like knit-your-own comfort grub; the jury was still out.
The main courses were a quantum leap forward, however. In particular, my better half raved about her coley fish curry with herby rice and jalapeno and garlic oil. Stuffed with big chunks of perfectly cooked white fish meat, the dark, rich curry was surprisingly intense yet not remotely so hot that the relatively subtle flavours of the fish were in danger of being overwhelmed.
My cider-braised pork belly with spiced cabbage, apple mashed potato, and rosemary and cider sauce was, in its own quiet way, equally enjoyable. A deep, thick slice of pork belly topped with a thin but brittle layer of crackling, the film of fat on top of the meat may have been slightly deeper than I’d normally like, but the dish more than atoned with a powerful flavour which found a suitable accompaniment in the perfectly judged sauce and slightly sweet apple mash. Where the starters felt forced and slightly fey, this was confident, grown-up food.
We finished with two conspicuously home-made puddings (that’s a compliment): a white chocolate and liqueur cherry mousse for me, and a lemon and lime cheesecake with ginger biscuit base for Bea. The mousse was far more akin to a soufflé and although it could have done with about ten times as much liqueur, it was packed with slivers of cherries and was rendered dangerously sweet by the quantity of white chocolate that had been added, so the shortcomings were outweighed by the positives. Bea’s huge slab of cheesecake also overcame its shortcomings (primarily the lack of sufficient lemon and lime) by being huge and indulgent.
Although Under The Stairs has some flaws – chief among which are several ridiculously small tables and the kitchen’s tendency to shy away from using strong flavours – I found myself concentrating on the positives, of which there are many. As well as being extraordinarily good value there’s an endearing earnestness and eagerness about the place and the people who run it that means that while this will never be a regular haunt, I won’t complain for one second if my niece ever suggests it’s time to visit again.
• Under the Stairs, 3a Merchant St, Edinburgh EH1 2QD (0131-466 8550, www.underthestairs.org)