Like a little squirrel hiding a juicy nut for a rainy day, I had been saving my visit to Le Mouton Noir, in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield area, for a chilly day when getting out of the capital was tricky and a feast of traditional French food would be a far more inviting option.
I had my set mind on this little slice of Gallic gastronomy for months and was, to say the least, a little put out when it abruptly shut its doors just after a lengthy refurbishment.
I needn’t have worried, though, because the same folk who had been recommending the Black Sheep were soon extolling the virtues of the restaurant that had risen, phoenix-like, from its ashes within weeks.
Three Birds, it was explained to me, is the brainchild of, well, three birds – who include former Howie’s stalwarts Jo Curtis and Kath Byrnes, who run the place alongside former Howie’s head chef Dave Seebacher, who got engaged on the day we visited and had taken the evening off.
This is one of those rare places where I just had to take one look at the menu and was immediately convinced that I would be in for a memorable meal. From the garlic soup with duck liver crisps at the beginning of this innovative but well-balanced menu to the gin and tonic jelly at the end, there was nothing I would have hesitated to order from a selection that was clearly the end result of a good deal of careful contemplation.
Our high hopes were raised even further by a list of specials on the blackboard that included gems such as devilled kidneys on toast.
The place has a nice feel too: a small, bright little restaurant, just off the main road that heads through the busy little suburb of Bruntsfield. Our waitress was a friend of the owners who had been dragooned in to help out, and spoke glowingly about the whole project – which has apparently been doing a more than decent trade since it opened its doors at the end of the Festival. The diners next to us certainly seemed very pleased with their meal, so we hunkered down and waited for the magic to happen.
We started off by ordering a 500ml carafe of both the house red and the white, which turned out to be a pair of perfectly drinkable Spanish wines – and outstanding value at just £8 each. At the same time, we ordered a couple of nibbles, opting for the pumpkin seed hummus and bread and the roast onion and gruyère, the latter mainly out of curiosity. Neither were particularly interesting: the hummus was a little on the firm and stodgy side for me, and the onion was, as Vicky had laughingly assured me it would be, a roast onion topped with melted gruyère. Extraordinary.
There were no reservations about either of our starters, though. Vicky’s crispy sea bass and sticky salsa was almost the size of a main portion and perfectly cooked, while the salsa was on the side and nicely understated. Even that was eclipsed, however, by my ham hock hash cake with poached egg and hollandaise. On its own, the hash cake would have been verging on too dry, but combined with the egg and sauce it was a superb variation on eggs benedict.
On any other evening, we might well have decided to opt for one of the quartet of plates for two to share when it came to the main course – the rib platter of tamarind-glazed lamb, molasses and bourbon sticky pork and fiery tomato beef Cajun sounded gorgeous, as did the seafood one-pot – but we wanted to try as wide a range of options as possible. So I chose the shellfish broth with lobster dumplings, cherry tomatoes, spring onion and pak choi, while Vicky went for the spiced lamb with mint yoghurt, Moroccan aubergine and homemade flatbread.
The four slices of lamb looked a little fatty but turned out to be virtually perfect; in fact, as good as any I’ve had for ages, and was well-complemented by the aubergine. My reaction to the broth was more equivocal. It was basically a decent bouillabaisse with a dozen small, rather cloying lobster dumplings in it; good, but I can think of several places I’ve had better.
Vicky rounded off with the gin and tonic jelly with lime granita and candied lime, which was something of a triumph, with a cutting acidic edge that freshened the palate. My bird’s mess – basically eton mess plus loads of chocolate chips in an ice-cream sundae glass – was well-priced at £3.75, but fairly unspectacular.
We nevertheless left in a good mood. It had been a really enjoyable meal with enough promise to ensure we would be coming back on our own time to investigate the rest of the menu.
Three Birds 3-5 Viewforth, Edinburgh (0131-229 3252, www.threebirds.co.uk)
Starters £5-£6.50 Main courses £11-£17 Plates for two £22-£32 Puddings £3-£4.50 Cheese £7