WITH the possible exception of Bray in Berkshire, which is home to two of the UK’s four Michelin three-star restaurants in The Fat Duck and The Waterside Inn, there is nowhere outside central London with as many starred or formerly starred restaurants as Leith.
Roseleaf Bar and Cafe
23-24 Sandport Place, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6EW (0131-476 5268, www.roseleaf.co.uk)
Starters £3.50-£5.95 Main courses £8.95-£14.95 Puddings
£4.95 (cheese £6.95)
Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin both have eponymous Michelin-star establishments in this semi-detached enclave of the capital, while the formerly starred Plumed Horse and the oh-so-close pukka tandoori palace Mithas are also in the mix.
But the thing that makes Leith unique is the sheer diversity of restaurants in such a small area. There is everything from French (Bistro Provence and The Shore), to fish (Ship on the Shore or Fishers), Indian (Gucchi and Britannia Spice), Thai (Port of Siam), Italian (Cafe Domenico), cafes (Mimi’s Bakehouse), Spanish (Tapa), outstanding value (Credo) and all points in between.
In particular, though, Leith has become home to some of the best pubs with grub in Edinburgh. The King’s Wark has rightly won endless awards for its food, while the Vintage, Bond No 9, Nobles, Compass Bar, Shore Bar, Lioness of Leith, Isobar and Teuchters Landing all have their devotees, and that’s without going as far as Ocean Terminal or the rash of new contenders on Leith Walk.
Chief among the idiosyncratic and laidback Leith hostelries which serve food is one where it’s almost impossible to simply turn up and have any reasonable expectation of getting a table, whether it’s on a Friday night or a Monday lunchtime. The Roseleaf Bar and Cafe has become one of Edinburgh’s worst-kept secrets; a bar where nothing is too much trouble and where the food has garnered rave reviews from locals ever since it opened.
The Roseleaf is right on the Water of Leith and is a popular destination in the summer. Primarily, this quirky little pub is known for its drink, with a range of beers from all over the world (a handful of Scottish craft beers leading the way), a diverse selection of 15 wines and even half a dozen different options if fizz is your thing. Mostly, though, regulars and occasional visitors alike identify the place by the fact that its two-dozen cocktails (half alcoholic, half not) are served in bone china teapots, one of which is shaped as a cottage, exactly the same as the one which my granny owned when I was a nipper.
Much of the decor is as eclectic and unexpected as the booze. The place is small, intimate and not for the claustrophobic, and at first sight looks like a mix of trendily mismatched Victorian furniture and traditional spit-and-sawdust boozer. Walls are covered with posters and paintings by local artists, while there are hats everywhere, which you’re allowed (even encouraged) to take down to instigate your own Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
There’s only space for about a dozen people in the rear dining room, but this is where you want to be so that you’re not competing with drinkers heading to and from the bar or the loos. This is where I occasionally come on a Sunday for the best eggs benedict in Edinburgh, and for a longer gawp at the Sunday papers than I’d be allowed at home. But on the Friday evening we visited, the menu was much changed from the Sunday lunchtime variety, even if it did arrive in the middle of a vintage copy of National Geographic, as per always.
When it comes to the food, the offering is consciously informal, with catchy names like Mac Attack for a souped-up macaroni cheese featuring truffled smoked applewood cheddar and pancetta, or Knock Out Gnocchi featuring sweet potato gnocchi sautéed in sage beurre noisette. Owners Johnny and Lin Kane take their grub seriously, with everything from the bread upwards made on the premises by chef Neil Connor.
I started with Cheeky Swine, which turned out to be slow-braised pork cheek with wilted spinach on a crunchy herby crouton and a Buckfast jus. This was a mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, with the Ritz-biscuit-sized and chewy – rather than crunchy – crouton providing the downside, while the melt-in-the-mouth pork cheek and a sweet Buckfast jus, which had been reduced so much it was halfway to tar, proving the upside.
Bea was happy enough with her Awesome Aranchini, which are balls of risotto cooked with Dunsyre Blue cheese and covered with panko breadcrumbs on a parsnip sauce. The risotto rice was just right, and while I’d have liked a bit more of the blue cheese to give the dish more bite, Bea liked everything about it except for the borderline gritty texture of the parsnip purée.
My main course of Cracking Curry was a homemade Thai green curry, bursting with green beans and slices of coley but all underpinned by a baseline of lemongrass, which just about gifted sufficient character to a dish that was in danger of being bland. Bea was equally conflicted when it came to her Funky Falafel Burger, which arrived with the best double dipper chips I’ve had for a long time, but which was so big you’d need to be Desperate Dan to fit the whole thing in. It did, however, avoid the usual problem with falafel in that it was not dry, and was given that injection of Middle Eastern flavour by a large dollop of tzatziki.
We rounded off with an enjoyable Barry Brulee (crème brulée laced with Frangelico and star anise baked plums) and a trio of profiteroles covered in some of the darkest chocolate. I’ve ever seen, and stuffed with a zesty orange crème patisserie, which could have done with being a little more zesty.
The Roseleaf may be a bit self-consciously hippie chic, but it’s all the more lovable for that. The staff are as attentive as they are efficient, the environment never fails to bring a smile to my face, the bill never induces a frown, and the food has a mix of honesty and ambition that makes you determined to enjoy the experience. Which, by and large, I – and to judge by how packed it is, the other locals – usually do.