Restaurant review: Hawke & Hunter, Edinburgh
SIMON TAYLOR is some man. He's still only 29, but the boy from Crieff has already amassed 66 caps for Scotland's rugby team, toured with the British Lions twice, represented Scotland at the Commonwealth Games and played in two Rugby World Cups.
Yet for a bloke who tips the scales at close to 19 stone and spends the majority of his time butting heads with other big fellas with cauliflower ears, these days in Paris with big-paying arrivistes Stade Franais, he's also a surprisingly sharp cookie. And not just because he has managed to combine a professional rugby career with a law degree in his adopted home of Edinburgh.
Taylor has also emerged as something of a culinary entrepreneur, and a pretty successful one at that. His first effort was the low-key but hugely stylish bar in the capital's New Town, 99 Hanover Street, which serves food and is aimed squarely at students. Next came Bruaich, in Broughty Ferry, plus ventures in Aberdeen that have seen Brown Taylor, the company he formed in 2006 with business partner Barrie Brown with 20,000 of his own money, turn over 2 million last year. There's clearly something in his genes – his sister Shari is also in the business, with Yann's at Glenearn house, the Crieff restaurant she runs with her French husband, proving to be a runaway success.
That Taylor is highly ambitious and self-confident has been demonstrated by his and Brown's acquisition last year of the licence for the building that formerly housed the private member's clubs the Hallion and Home House, in Edinburgh's Picardy Place. This imposing Georgian terrace, with an enviable location right in the centre of town and within a quick walk of several major office blocks, is one of those ventures that really ought to be a success, but has always struggled. Full at some times, empty at others, the Hallion never made the breakthrough, and after more than six months since its re-emergence under Taylor and Brown as Hawke & Hunter, the jury is still out.
In many ways, surprisingly little has changed inside. There have been a few stylistic flourishes, and there's the self-playing piano, billiards room and secret garden, but the first-floor bar area and the ground-floor restaurant remain significantly unchanged. Nor, it seems, has the feast-and-famine pattern of use been broken, with the place being stowed out some days, but almost empty on others.
The lunch trade has been a particular challenge, and on the day we visited there was just a sparse covering of men in suits to cover the spacious dining room's embarrassment. Whether or not this remains the same in Edinburgh's fiercely competitive city centre is, of course, down to the food and the pricing.
On the first count, at least, there was much to commend Hawke & Hunter. If a two-course evening meal is generally going to set you back less than 20, the lunchtime menu we were given seemed to represent almost unbelievably good value, with starters costing just 3 while all the main courses were just a fiver. Throw in the rather plush surroundings and it's so remarkably well-priced that the only surprise is discovering the place isn't packed out every lunchtime.
The only conclusion we could draw was that the quality of the food must not be up to much. But this, too, turned out to be wide of the mark, with a lean menu of dishes that were classic combinations with a strong emphasis on seasonal ingredients and simple presentation.
I started with the mushroom soup, which was a little more liquidy than my perfect version (my wife Bea's, which remains unbeaten and probably skews my perception when it comes to this dish). Still, it was full of flavour, and being rounded off with a dash of cream made for a well-above-average take on the genus. Michael opted for the fried haggis with tomato, pepper and chilli relish. A little dry, it was nevertheless rescued by the punchy relish, and received a qualified pass.
Our main courses were a step up, though. My slow-roast pork belly, served on a slate and accompanied by creamed sweetcorn and pearl barley, was a simple, nicely produced dish in which the ingredients meshed comfortably. The same could also be said of Michael's confit duck leg with potatoes, purple sprouting broccoli and a tangy duck sauce – although a good combination was almost undone by the meat being a little overcooked.
We enjoyed wildly divergent fortunes when it came to pudding. I rounded off with a superb rosemary set cream, an insanely creamy, enjoyable and understated dish, while Michael's undersized cheese plate looked as tired and as sweaty as Jimmy Savile at the end of a marathon.
Yet, for all the glitches and near-misses, this was still nicely presented food of staggeringly good value, efficiently served in beautiful surroundings. Hawke & Hunter is well worth a lunchtime visit.
And when we took a closer look at the dinner menu, we found lots we liked the look of. Let's just hope that we're not the only ones to think so.
Hawke & Hunter
12 Picardy Place, Edinburgh (0131-557 0952, www.hawkeandhunter.co.uk)
Out of pocket
Lunch Starters 3 Main courses 5 Puddings 4.50 Cheese 6.95 Dinner Starters 4.55-5.95 Main courses 12.95-17.45 Puddings 4.25-4.75 Cheese 6.95
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