FOR the capital’s many foodies, Edinburgh Larder is like some sort of gastronomic nirvana, spoken about in hushed tones as one of the city’s premier sources of the good stuff.
And there’s no doubt that their four-year-old café just off the Royal Mile is one of the best places for breakfast or a light lunch in Edinburgh: it’s just around the corner from my office so I’ve tried its gorgeous home-made granola first thing in the morning, smiled in pleasure at its undeniably brilliant chocolate and nut brownies and its commendably strong Artisan Roast coffee, and enjoyed popping in for a quick deli plate.
Part of the success of the Edinburgh Larder deli and café in the Old Town is its remarkable roster of suppliers, which reads like a Who’s Who of the most storied suppliers of, well, Scotland’s natural larder. This best of the best are all represented on Edinburgh Larder’s lengthy list of suppliers: the meat and fish section alone features Great Glen Game smokery, meat from the organic gurus at Peelham Farm, Ayrshire smoked bacon from Ramsay of Carluke, smoked venison from Rannoch Smokery, smoked fish from Creelers while the seafood comes from Welch.
The team at Edinburgh Larder have clearly travelled the length and breadth of the country, and no stone has been left unturned in the quest to find the best, freshest, most organic and sustainable produce. They’re leading lights in the Slow Food movement, regularly showcase their ethos and culinary skills at farmers’ markets and generally go the extra mile to do everything right.
It’s a formula that has worked like a dream since 2009 at their café and deli, so last year they launched the Edinburgh Larder bistro in the West End, in a tricky basement site on Alva Street. Refurbished last month, whether you’re inside or out in the conservatory, it’s a beautifully light and airy space that has been sensitively decked out with booths made from recycled wood and lamp shades made of upturned basket creels. From its gentle atmosphere and friendly staff to the soft lighting and rustic touches to the decor, the whole place glows with studied informality and a self-conscious attempt to ensure everyone is at their ease. By and large it works, too.
The big issue for Edinburgh Larder was always whether the angelic qualities that had made their deli and café such a success would be easily transferable to their restaurant, which is a lot more of a challenge than it sounds. For a start, their implacable dedication to seasonality means changing the menu frequently in their restaurant, which tests the kitchen in a way that it never would in a café. It’s also more difficult to pre-plan when every dish is being cooked to order.
We set about testing whether the bistro matched up to the café with two starters from a list that looked so inviting that I could have tried them all. Bea plumped for the squid with black pudding, gooseberry syrup, pickled carrots and Arran leaves, while I opted for the rabbit loin with potato purée, barley, green leaf sauce and cider butter.
My small portion of rabbit loin was fine, if a little overcooked and almost completely devoid of that lovely gaminess that I like in rabbit; in fact it was so subtly flavoured that it tasted more like chicken. The potato purée and barley were a lovely mix of textures, but the whole effect was rather spoiled by the oiliness of the green leaf sauce.
Bea’s issue with her squid starter was rather more terminal – her squid was nicely cooked, but the black pudding had been absolutely incinerated, leaving it hard, chewy and adding nothing to the squid. To make matters worse, there was such a ridiculously parsimonious amount of black pudding that there wasn’t enough to eat some with every mouthful of squid, rendering the combination null and void. Notwithstanding the imperative not to attempt to reduce any of a dish’s constituent parts to carbon, a basic rule of running a restaurant is never to scrimp on the inexpensive ingredients, and black pudding surely comes into that category.
My main course was a quantum step up in quality, as was Bea’s. The fillet of mullet with mussels, boiled potatoes, sea-foraged vegetables and a tarragon vinaigrette was a joy; the fish was beautifully moist, combined well with the mussels and with the well-judged combination of vegetables in which the fresh, delicate tones of the sea aster were to the fore.
Bea was fairly equivocal about her two smallish pieces of rack of lamb. The meat was succulent and tender, but represented such slim pickings that she was half thinking about popping into the chippy on the way home. She expected more (in a literal sense) for £18.
We rounded off with a chocolate and lavender torte with coffee jelly and espresso purée on the side and a meadowsweet set cream with seasonal berries and “bloomin marvellous” granita, neither of which set the heather on fire. The jelly and purée which accompanied the torte was set to one side, while there was no discernible sign of the lavender in a dish that looked impressive but slightly flattered to deceive. My set cream consisted of a layer of subtly flavoured and very dense panna cotta topped with berries and then served with flavoured crushed ice, a combination which Bea enjoyed far more than I did.
I left in a thoughtful state of mind, mildly disappointed by a meal in which all of the fripperies – the environment, the cheery service, and the sustainable credentials – were impeccable, but the food just somehow failed to come up to the high standards I’d expected from the Edinburgh Larder. Can there be such a thing as trying too hard? No, still I didn’t think so...
Edinburgh Larder, 1A Alva Street, Edinburgh EH2 4PH (0131 225 4599, www.edinburghlarder.co.uk)
Bill please Starters £4.95-£6.50
Main courses £13.95-£20.95
Puddings £5.50-£6.50 (cheeseboard £4.95-£7.50)
Rating: 6 out of 10