THE way some sites seem to possess a metaphorical revolving door that spits out ostensibly popular restaurants never ceases to amaze me. One minute there’s a well-established and apparently thriving business, the next it’s all change. And on and on, ad infinitum.
Sometimes a spectacularly successful restaurant will come along and break the cycle, as The Kitchin has done in Leith and Dominic Jack also seems to have done at Edinburgh’s Castle Terrace. Yet there are other sites which continue to change hands every couple of years for no apparent reason. Two of them are on West Nicolson Street in Newington, within spitting distance of George Square, home to the Udderbelly during the Festival.
One, now called Field but previously Home Bistro, seems to be going like a train, which is perhaps no surprise given the astoundingly good quality of food on offer for relatively small prices. Just three doors down, however, the newly opened and family- owned Sylvesters is trying to follow Field’s lead.
Having opened its doors in May on the site of the popular and invariably busy Pink Olive, it’s had a fair run at proceedings, what with the Festival and graduation ceremonies aplenty, not to mention an endless summer that has induced everyone to get out and spend their hard-earned cash.
The crunch time for such restaurants inevitably comes at this time of year, as credit card bills from the summer holidays have to be paid off and when everyone’s taking a breather before the spending orgy of the festive season. If that were the only basis on which to judge the long-term viability of a restaurant, Sylvesters would be in trouble: on the Sunday night we visited, we were literally the only people in the place. That said, we’d been visiting because the friends who recommended it had done so after eating there the previous week, when it had been packed and pulsing with life.
More to the point, we were visiting because we’d heard that head chef Kieran Sylvester, who cut his teeth under Neil Forbes at The Atrium, had picked up where Pink Olive had left off by producing a mix of superior gastropub fare and solid contemporary Scottish cuisine that is well within reach of the student pocket but good enough to draw people from all around the city.
The restaurant itself has lost none of its charm: indeed, as the food has been pepped up after Pink Olive began to flag, so the decor has been refreshed and brightened up, to the point where it actually makes the place feel bigger.
Indeed, it felt particularly big and echoing on the night we beamed in to try it out. On realising we were the only custom for the night, lesser restaurants would have cancelled the reservation, but instead we were given personalised service and a verbal guided tour of the new menu that left us in no doubt that all the staff know the dishes inside out. As we vacillated on which wine to try, samples were brought out so that we could choose our poison with hindsight: would that all empty restaurants responded so positively.
By the time our starters arrived, we were feeling lots of love for the place. Bea’s sun-dried tomato and Kalamata olive bruschetta only increased her feel-good factor, the two beautifully rustic slabs of bruschetta coming covered in big chunks of tomato that had been so thoroughly sun-dried that they were almost black, and which sat on top of a toasted goat’s cheese.
So far so simple, but my starter was a bit more of a puzzle. I’d ordered the hot smoked salmon chowder and expected to see something that looked pretty fishy; instead, I got what looked and tasted like potato and leek soup containing shards of shredded roasted salmon. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but it certainly wasn’t what I expected and I wouldn’t order it again.
The same doesn’t go for my maple Gressingham duck breast. This is exactly my type of food: two slabs of ever-so-faintly pink duck breast encased in a thin layer of skin and fat to retain the moisture, and served with industrial quantities of roasted beetroot and sweet potatoes. For a duck-loving, root vegetable enthusiast, this was heaven on a plate although, as ever, it could have done with some more sauce.
Bea was equally happy with her main course, which consisted of a hefty bowl of almost radioactively yellow chicken laksa which came with fresh egg noodles and a kick that brought a wide smile to her face. If I’d be happy to live off roasted root vegetables for the rest of my life, Bea wouldn’t complain if she woke up in Kuala Lumpur and was forced to exist on a diet of laksa, and this was a very decent example.
As the iPod that governed the aural experience trotted out a bewildering array of tunes – it was on shuffle and seemed to contain a schizophrenic selection that ranged from Midnight Oil to 1920s Charleston flapper schtick – we rounded off an evening of splendid isolation with a pretty average caramel pannacotta and a distinctly tart (and therefore good), ‘zingy’ lemon posset, which came with cinnamon shortbread and a deliciously dark raspberry coulis.
For all the misgivings we experienced when we arrived at a restaurant that echoed uncomfortably loudly with our chatter, the experience ended up being a largely positive one and the bill a pleasantly small one. So much so that I bet that if I come back in two years’ time, it’ll be Kieran Sylvester who’s working the stoves in the kitchen. I certainly hope so.
• Sylvesters, 55-57 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh (0131-662 4493, www.sylvestersedinburgh.co.uk)
Starters £3.95-5.50. Main courses £8.95-£12.95.
Puddings £4.25-£4.95. Pre-theatre menu: two courses £11.95; three courses £13.95.
Rating: 7 out of 10