Restaurant review: Bijou, Restalrig Road, Edinburgh
BIJOU opened back in 2006 and its gradual rise in popularity has been a salutary story of how an unpretentious little eatery has managed to develop a devoted loyal local following on the back of fantastic breakfasts, a busy sandwich counter at lunchtime and low-cost dining in the evening.
BIJOU opened back in 2006 and its gradual rise in popularity has been a salutary story of how an unpretentious little eatery has managed to develop a devoted loyal local following on the back of fantastic breakfasts, a busy sandwich counter at lunchtime and low-cost dining in the evening. Word of mouth, always the best way to grow, has done the rest, and for much of the week the place is a hubbub of activity.
At first sight, 'unpretentious' may sound like a euphemism. From outside the little site, on the corner of Edinburgh's Restalrig Street and East Hermitage Place, with views on to Leith Links, it looks like it could do with a lick of paint. Once we walked through the doors the impression was of a place in need of a little TLC. There were nice touches, such as gilt mirrors and specials board, but a quick trip to an auction house for proper tables to replace the lightweight cheapo caf ones currently in use might not go amiss.
It was also fantastically chilly, so we sat next to the radiator, which Duncan immediately turned up while no-one was looking. Even then, our coats stayed on. Yet for all that Bijou looks like a sandwich bar moonlighting of an evening (which is, essentially, what it is), there is still something inviting and convivial about this restaurant. With room for just 26 diners inside, once full it has an atmospheric, cosy ambience. Outside, there are several streetside tables, with a collector's item of a note saying, "Smokers are welcome." On summer weekends, when it's warm enough for al fresco dining, this space is packed.
The place's popularity lies partly in its position, but mainly in the fact that it is extremely good value. The soups start from just 3, and frequently replenished flip-top bottles of water come as standard, while the house wine is just 12.95 and you can bring your own if you prefer, with the incredibly low corkage of 2.50 making this a sensible option. The menu comprises comfort food all the way, with hearty staples being the order of the day. The prices are also very reasonable, particularly if you're not a big eater, with each dish being served in three sizes: the eponymous bijou, for children or dieters, medium and large.
Bijou makes a virtue out of being laid-back, which in our case meant a lengthy wait for our food. After the best part of 20 minutes, the kitchen finally spluttered into life as our starters arrived.
Duncan and Adair both plumped for the tomato and chilli pepper soup, and were rewarded with big bowls of excellent, warming soup which, given that it was a chilly old night and the radiator still hadn't worked its magic, was exactly what was required. The bread, however, was terrible, which isn't acceptable when there are two very good bakeries within a ten-minute drive. My bijou helping of spring pea, broad bean and asparagus risotto with a very nice parmesan crisp was an ambitious option, and one that would have benefited from less olive oil, but it was still pretty enjoyable.
If our starters were rustic and hearty, so too were our main courses. Duncan ordered fish cakes with red pepper mayonnaise, and was presented with three huge cakes that made up for a preponderance of potato over fish by their sheer size. Simply finishing them was a feat in itself. Much the same could be said for Adair's three confit duck legs, which came with a coarsely chopped coleslaw: despite the fact that they were perfectly cooked, he couldn't even finish the second one, let alone polish off all three. My main course of pan-fried king prawns with calamari and a bed of vegetables, dominated by peppers, was a different proposition. Again, it was good, solid comfort food, well executed and representing decent value for money, but it came in a manageable portion and there was no question of not finishing it off.
By the time we got to pudding, we were the only people left in the restaurant and the service picked up pace to warp factor nine; no sooner was a plate put down on the table than it was whisked away.
We rounded off by trying all three pudding options: Duncan's rhubarb crme brle was top drawer; my warm chocolate cheesecake wasn't warm, wasn't cheesecake and wouldn't feature on my next visit; and Adair failed to make use of the dizzyingly diverse range of ice-cream flavours on offer by choosing to have three scoops of pretty good (but not home-made) vanilla. Suitably refreshed, we finished up with a cup of mint tea from a bag and a lukewarm latte.
Bijou may be small, but it is not perfectly formed. Yet for all its undoubted shortcomings, the place has a take-us-as-we-are honesty that is endearing and which, along with the fantastic value, lies at the heart of its appeal. What you see is what you get, and if that's good enough for its growing crowd of staunch supporters, it's good enough for me.
2 Restalrig Road, Edinburgh (0131-538 0664, www.bijoubistro.co.uk)
Main courses 6.95-14.50
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday, May 9, 2010
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