LIKE friends, sometimes the best local restaurants are those that will help out in adversity, who will squeeze you in when your cooker’s blown up at late o’clock on a Saturday evening, or won’t bat an eyelid when you turn up at short notice with two more people than they’d expected.
Rollo, 108 Raeburn Place, Edinburgh EH4 1HH (0131 332 1232, www.barrollo.com)
If that’s the basis for a lasting relationship with your neighbourhood restaurant, then Rollo and I are going to be mates for quite some time.
It started when we got a call from two friends who’d just got engaged and asked us to celebrate in time-honoured fashion with a bottle of fizz in the bar at their hotel. We were due to be going out an hour later to try Rollo, which only opened a week earlier, but as soon as we arrived it became clear that helping mark such a life-changing decision couldn’t be rushed.
As Rollo is open until 1am, I rang and explained we’d like to put back the meal by half an hour or even an hour, and we’d now like a table for four instead of for two. “Sorry Lovely, we’re full,” said a husky Kiwi voice, “but stay where you are and ring me back every 20 minutes and as soon as we can get all four of you in then we’d love to see you.”
It is the sort of laissez-faire attitude that warms the heart, and when we finally arrived at Rollo, with the clock about to strike ten, we were already pretty well inclined towards the place. What we found inside this tiny Stockbridge restaurant, next to Raeburn Place and on a site that used to be occupied by a skanky Chinese restaurant, wound up our expectations a couple of notches further. Small, with just 30 covers, this is a perfectly formed little restaurant: painted a sort of dark bronze, but with large portions of the walls covered with wine racks, it exudes an unmistakably welcoming ambience that was instantly reinforced by the relaxed, cheery staff.
It was no surprise to discover that this is a family-owned restaurant in which fashion designer Ailsa Rollo, who is backed by her architect dad and sculptor mum, runs front of house wearing a slinky black dress with the word “ROLLO” printed along the hem, with her waitress in matching kit. Presumably her two chefs, both of whom worked at the recently closed Cafe Fish, dress more casually.
The much-travelled Rollo spent her formative years in Scotland but has travelled widely, living in Auckland, Sydney and Brighton amongst other places. That itinerant lifestyle has left its mark on a tapas-style menu that featured several dishes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Manly harbourfront.
The four of us started with what were called Bites: four crab bonbons with a chilli and passion fruit sauce; four crispy haggis bonbons with what was described as whisky marmalade dip; smoked salmon pâté with toast; and smoked aubergine with tomato and parsley and sourdough toast that was so good it must surely have come from their illustrious neighbour, Herbie’s deli.
Two other foodie friends had visited earlier in the week and had disagreed on their verdict, and a split immediately opened in our group, with fussy being significantly less impressed than the rest of us. To be fair to him, he had a point on the bonbons, because both the crab and haggis balls were scaldingly hot and cloyingly heavy, and came with slightly oily, glutinous sauces. There was, however, no mistaking the quality of the smoked salmon pâté, or of the closely diced smoked aubergine, both of which were horribly moreish.
With some of the dishes from the Plates and Bowls sections costing just a fiver and clearly meant for sharing, we ordered six dishes. The Portobello mushroom rarebit, which was essentially three small Portobello mushrooms topped with spinach and a small amount of cheese, floated nobody’s boat. The punchily spicy beef meatballs were cooked in hard-packed kofte style rather than as the more loosely bound meatballs generally favoured in Scotland: again some of us liked them and others were less keen.
Yet from there on in, there was virtual unanimity at the high quality of the remaining dishes. The two slices of crispy skin sea bass in tomatoes, olives, herbs and shallots were beautifully fresh and perfectly cooked, while the flavoursome chunks of crispy belly pork (notwithstanding ’s stubborn contention that they were too fatty) were well complemented by a sumptuous quince aioli. Although they seemed a tad pricey at £12, the three slices of pepper-roast Borders venison with blackcurrant sauce were gorgeously crimson and so soft you could cut them with a spoon, while the scallops with crab, pineapple and curry oil took the prize for the unexpected triumph of the evening.
I rounded off with a fantastic chocolate brownie with peanuts and caramel, and Bea opted for an affogato that came with a shot of Baileys, while Tilly chose the panna cotta. Sadly, with a corrosively tart raspberry compote on top and a dense, almost crème brûlée-like bottom, the panna cotta failed to hit the mark and Tilly only ate half of it. The ever-vigilant Ailsa immediately noticed and insisted that she would take it off the bill. “This is my restaurant and if you don’t eat it you don’t pay for it,” was her last word on the matter.
These are exciting times for this end of Stockbridge. Right opposite Rollo, Tom Kitchin’s hugely popular Scran & Scallie has rejuvenated the whole area, while the transformation of the Raeburn House Hotel into a five-star boutique hotel will undoubtedly also act as a magnet, as will the ambitious redevelopment of the Raeburn Place rugby ground. Rollo feels like the right people in the right place at the right time, and I for one will certainly be back.
Bill please: Starters (Bites) £3-£5 Main courses (Plates) £5-£12 Puddings: £5-£8 (cheese £9)
Rating: 7 out of 10