I HAVE been passing the Mussel and Steak Bar for as long as it’s been there, normally on the way back from work, or perhaps on the way up to meet friends for a pint or two at one of the best old man’s boozers on the planet, let alone in Edinburgh, the Bow Bar on Victoria Street.
Mussel and Steak Bar, 110 West Bow, Grassmarket, Edinburgh
(0131-225 5028, www.musselandsteakbar.com)
Starters £3.95-£8.95, Main courses £12.95-£24.95, Puddings £3.50, Cheese £6.95
With so many other promising restaurants nearby, the Mussel and Steak Bar never held my attention for more than a second or two. To be frank, I presumed that it was another one of the capital’s many tourist traps.
Earlier this year, however, that all changed. I was asked to cover the Chanel bash at Linlithgow Palace and listened with interest as the company’s squadron of PR girls talked about a small restaurant their absurdly fashionable Parisian guests had taken over, which they loved. It turned out a concierge at one of the top-end Edinburgh hotels had suggested the Mussel and Steak Bar, promoting it as the city’s best-kept secret.
It’s certainly pretty secret. I’d never heard anyone give it even the briefest mention in gastronomic dispatches, but maybe that had been my loss. There was, of course, only one way to find out. So, walking past excellent restaurants such as Ondine, the Grain Store and Blue, instead of turning right to that old favourite Petit Paris, we hung a left and entered the surf ‘n’ turf emporium that had so impressed France’s most fashionable souls.
It’s often the smallest things that leave the biggest impression, and this was certainly true of the Mussel and Steak Bar. The door is so absurdly heavy you almost have to stick your shoulder against it to open it (in fact, it even has a sign on it to warn those coming in that forcing entry will be worth the effort), and if it is difficult to open, it’s painfully slow to close. That meant that every time someone came in or out there was a rush of cold air that was as bracing as it was annoying. When I took a scout around the restaurant’s rather functional interior, there were plenty of places that weren’t subject to the icy blast, it’s just that I wasn’t in one of them. I suspect the chic Chanel crew, who had shivered their way uncontrollably through proceedings at the sleet-lashed Palace, must have been placed far from the wind tunnel I inhabited for the evening.
Still, we’re both rather partial to surf ‘n’ turf, so we looked forward to a meal that would be completely dependent upon the quality of the ingredients. It was a meal that started well, with a bottle of Umbrele Chardonnay from Romania, which was once one of Europe’s finest wine-producing areas until Nicolae Ceaucescu started ripping up its best vineyards. This, however, was lovely: viscous, biscuity and with a rich peach finish; a surprisingly good house wine.
Sadly, the same could not be said of our starters, which were fine but nothing more. The haggis in my haggis Wellington was a little overdone, but had just the right texture and a nice hint of spiciness. However, it came with a tomato relish which tasted suspiciously like the mass-produced dipping sauce into which my kids stick their nachos, while the strips of parsnip crisp were so soggy it was impossible to escape the conclusion that this dish had been sitting around for a good while, almost certainly baking under a chef’s heat lamp. Bea’s devilled whitebait with a dollop of super-dense tzatziki was the better of the two dishes, but then it’s pretty tricky to mess up whitebait.
For her main course, Bea chose the speciality of the house, the surf ‘n’ turf, which consisted of an 8oz ribeye steak served with half a kilo of mussels, crevettes and squid in a disappointingly bland white wine, shallot and garlic sauce. Given that the restaurant will be judged by many on the quality of its steaks, I was a little surprised at the paucity of information about their provenance, which was limited to the fact that they were from grass-fed Scottish herds and hung for a minimum of 38 days. Nevertheless, the steak was competently cooked and nicely marbled: not the best I’ve had in Edinburgh but very decent. The mussels were commendably plump, though the crevettes were on the small side, and the squid was just the right side of rubbery. It was, all in all, reasonable value for the price tag of £25.
I had chosen to try one of the more obscure dishes on a rather boring menu, opting for the sweet potato gnocchi with tomato and Dunsyre Blue cheese. The home-made gnocchi was good and plentiful, but the tomato sauce appeared to consist largely of tinned tomatoes enlivened with dollops of cheese, making the price tag of £13.25 more than a little hefty.
Restaurants with their priorities so firmly elsewhere often disappoint with their selection of puddings, but the options here were almost disgracefully unimaginative. We eventually chose to round off with a gloriously strident lemon posset and a risibly poor tiramisu that was totally devoid of flavour and an utter waste of £3.50.
On the subject of cash, the Mussel and Steak Bar is generally pretty good value, but it gets even better between Monday and Thursday when it offers one of the best value lunch deals in the capital, with half a kilo of mussels or a burger, plus a glass of house wine or bottle of Stella Artois, for just £5. Just print off the flyer on its website and present it between noon and 2:45pm.
As for the free-ranging evening option, my view is quite clearly an unfashionable one. I heard, I went, I ate, I froze, I left.
I won’t be going back.
• Mussel and Steak Bar, 110 West Bow, Grassmarket, Edinburgh