I MUST admit that I had pretty low expectations for Fish Eatery. Situated at the bottom of what was once the Hallion Club, the expensive failed experiment in bringing Groucho Club style to Auld Reekie, it is the latest in a long line of attempts to craft a successful restaurant out of what should be a prime city centre site.
12 Picardy Place, Edinburgh EH1 3JT (0131-556 9908, www.fishedinburgh.co.uk)
Main courses £10-£22
To be fair, Mark Greenaway did a good job when he was there, although it was only when he moved to North Castle Street that his business really began to motor along. All of which is something of a mystery because the site beneath the Twelve Picardy Place boutique hotel should be a winner. Not only is it pretty central and near to some fairly swanky homes, offices and shops, its interior is a genuinely inviting space which mixes traditional New Town high ceilings and cornicing with nice touches like walls that are stripped back to bare stone.
That said, the fact that the restaurant is the brainchild of wunderkind chef Jason Wright does make it more than likely that Fish Eatery will succeed, despite its dreadful name. The grounds for thinking so are right next door to Wright’s new fish restaurant in the form of his first restaurant, Steak. A huge space capable of seating more than 100 people, Steak has been a runaway success thanks in part to Wright’s clever conversion of what had been a large banqueting hall. He got a stage designer to break up the place and gave the impression of lowered ceilings by using thick ropes, a ploy that has worked a treat.
On my previous two visits, however, I’ve been a little underwhelmed by what appeared on my plate at Steak (perhaps because its proximity inevitably invites direct comparison with the excellent Kyloe), so I was really interested to see how 28-year-old Wright would fare with Fish Eatery. It is, in many ways, a similar challenge. Okay, so the physical shell of his new 46-seater restaurant was already in place, so there was no need for the remodelling that has been at the heart of Steak’s success, but the importance of sourcing and of placing the fish centre stage provides many of the same issues that he successfully navigated at Steak.
The first challenge was met by sourcing all of his fish from Edinburgh fishmonger Gary Welch, who supplies some of the best fish and shellfish from around Scotland. The service, which was a real issue at Steak in its early days, was absolutely spot on. The staff went through the ordeal of opening at the start of the Festival – if they can get that right, then dealing with relatively compliant Edinburghers must be a piece of cake.
But the main thing the restaurant got right is the menu. There wasn’t an overflowing specials board, which tells you that the kitchen is choosing the freshest fish and adapting accordingly, but the menu was a nice mix of old classics and thought-provoking combinations.
Bea, for instance, started with a Coronation shrimp salad. A disarmingly simple dish, it was also perfectly executed, with crisp salad coated in a nicely understated Coronation sauce, studded with plenty of shrimps and supplied with lime to add an acidic edge. It was a relatively small portion but, said my dining partner, a quietly impressive dish. My Newhaven dressed brown crab, which transported me back to my youth when long summer days on the beach were punctuated by eating crab picnics, was similarly satisfactory.
When it came to our main courses, we were disappointed to find that the interesting-sounding halibut kiev served with “crab baked beans and potato waffles” had piqued the interest of so many diners that the dish had sold out. Instead, Bea opted for the roast sea bass with potato purée, chestnut mushrooms, seared spice cabbage and garlic butter, and received an absolutely gorgeous slab of succulent white fish that had her smiling to herself for the next ten speechless minutes.
If Bea was happy with her main course, my fish stew was absolutely superb. Granted, they had run out of red mullet so had to replace it with sea bass, but that hardly mattered because almost everything about it (save for the fact that the gunk at the bottom of the bowl looked a little oily, even if it didn’t taste it) was faultless. It wasn’t, if I’m picking holes, the biggest bowl, but everything in it – a fillet of sea bass, big juicy mussels, razor clams and quartered new potatoes – was done to perfection. Best of all was the thick dark juice at the bottom of the bowl, which was so intense and rich that it made my cheekbones tingle. Again, I’ve got one small regret, which is that instead of traditional rustic bread there was a rather tasteless, dense variety with which to mop up the gunk (oh yes I did).
Bizarrely for a fish restaurant, pudding was as good as anything that had preceded it. My beautifully presented white chocolate and strawberry trifle was worth coming back for on its own, and Bea’s Peach Melba wasn’t far behind. If that was a pleasant surprise, so too was the bill, which came in at £80 including service and wine, with both of our main courses at a very reasonable £13 each. That is outstanding value for a meal of this quality. And make no mistake, this was a top meal, the best I’ve had since visiting the Cellar in Anstruther.
For the capital of a country which prides itself on having the best seafood in Europe and quite possibly the world, Edinburgh’s lack of fish restaurants has always been a bit puzzling. But now Fish Eatery can be placed alongside Ondine, The Ship on the Shore and Sweet Melindas, and not look remotely out of place.