IMAGINE what it must be like never to have squirrels romp across one of your branches, to feel young lovers carving Gazza4Stacey into your torso, or to contract Dutch Elm. Forever small – that’s a bonsai’s lot. And this seemed like the situation for this plant’s namesake, Edinburgh eatery, Bonsai.
14 Broughton Street, Edinburgh
Lunch for three, excluding drinks, £57.63
Its roots are in a smallish venue at the Pleasance, which has been ticking along quite nicely for the last 13 years.
Then, all of a flurry – like a tiny oak that’s wigged out on Baby Bio – they’ve burst free of their safe little pot and opened a second branch at the top of hip and happening Broughton Street.
It’s just next to fishmonger, Something Fishy, and across the road from one of those Greggs shops that’s been painted black and, thus, is in disguise as something posher.
Their new place’s interior is similar to their original branch, with black, white and red livery, which lends a graphic, early Noughties vibe.
Glossy posters on the walls advertise their £4.95 for one-course lunch special (noon-2pm), but our gang of three went a-la-carte.
From the specials blackboard, we opted for the dark dragon rolls (£11.95), as they’re a bit of a benchmark on Japanese menus. As a staple item, they’re often either at the Puff the Magic, or Beowulf baddie, end of the scale. This was somewhere in the middle.
There was an excess of chopped spring onion, mayo and miso sauce chaotically zig-zagged over the top, as if to camouflage the fact that the eight rice rolls were a little schlumpy looking – unevenly sized, with a trowelled-on roof of puréed avocado (rather than the neatly sliced green “scales” that you might expect). Still, they tasted alright, with a nuggety heart of nori-wrapped prawn tempura, and the “dark” element in this dish’s title provided by a minuscule pillbox-hat of eel (unagi).
The inside-out rainbow rolls (£8.98 for eight pieces) were also rather aesthetically sloppy. When it comes to sushi, the artful cutting of the fish is paramount. However, a couple of the pieces of salmon and tuna looked as if they’d been yakked up by a cat. At least, like the dragon rolls, these cucumber-centred discs of rice tasted much better than they looked.
Our other special – tempura roasted eel roll (£5.95) – was sliced into an octet of diamond-shaped pieces with, throughout their cross-sections, a shoelace-thick core of this skinny barbecued fish. This option was a little bland overall, but its tempura covering was as blonde, crisp and aerated as popcorn. It was the same deal with our tonkatsu pork (£5.95) which, best eaten hot, featured a flattened piece of meat cocooned in batter.
“Fishy Ferrero Rocher!” exclaimed one of my dining partners, Alice, when it came to the takoyaki (£4.95), which was sprinkled with smoked bonito flakes and consisted of five squishy, slippery-middled “octopus dumplings”. Though, this was no ambassador’s residence and we only felt semi spoilt.
I had pushed for the cheese gyoza (£4.50) option, simply because it sounded like a wild card. And so it was. With their gluey cheddar centres, this set of five fried dumplings tasted a bit like Findus Crispy Pancakes.
Two vegetarian options – the traditional pancake that is okonomiyaki, (£4.95), aka the lovechild of an omelette and a tattie scone, was good and homely, while, agenasu (£4.50), or sliced grilled aubergine with chilli miso sauce, was spicy-sweet and squidgy.
For pudding, crème brûlée (£3.95) was about as Japanese as Rene in ’Allo ’Allo, but gooey, appropriately crispy-lidded and vanilla-y, with a layer of soft stewed yellow plums along its bottom. We also liked the mini serving of clean-tasting green tea cheesecake (£1.95), which came in a narrow shot glass (though, sadly, the spoon that was provided couldn’t reach its biscuity bottom).
So, yeah, Bonsai is okay. I don’t get the impression that they’re trying to appeal to those who’re going to get pretentious about pristine cuts of fish, or feel disappointed that their green tea was served in a mug, as ours was (after all, those people will probably already be at Kanpai, www.kanpaisushi.co.uk).
Instead, they’ll be here to provide a decent pit-stop for those heading out to one of Broughton Street’s groovy bars or clubs. I’m sure there will always be plenty of birds nesting on this restaurant’s new branch, but I shall probably be roosting elsewhere.
• Bonsai, 14 Broughton Street, Edinburgh; 0131-557 5093, www.bonsaibarbistro.co.uk