LAUNCHED mid-festival amid an explosion of publicity, the Juniper cocktail bar and its accompanying restaurant got off to a flier, as they say in sporting parlance.
Twenty Princes Street Grill & Smokehouse
20 Princes Street, Edinburgh
• Starters £4.50-£10
• Main courses £8-£22
• Puddings £4.50-£6 (cheeseboard £6.50)
Packed every day and night by beautiful people with deep pockets seeking soya milk cocktails and Quorn steaks, it must have seemed that there’s nothing tricky about this restaurateur lark.
Now that the festival is over and the throng has left, we’re back in that difficult two-month period between the summer and the first Christmas parties when the capital’s city centre restaurants have to eke out a living from locals and the dwindling numbers of visitors. Nevertheless, few restaurants can have such a perfect site, right opposite the Balmoral Hotel and Waverley Station on Princes Street, in the heart of the city.
For the moment, there’s the odd situation where the pretty substantial and dated sign above the door is still that of the Royal British Hotel, but once you come in off the street and walk up a wide marble staircase, you reach a swish-looking parting of the ways where you can go left to cocktail heaven at Juniper or right to the restaurant. The latter is a large room with beautifully corniced high ceilings and stunning views over Princes Street Gardens and The Mound, and right up to the castle if you’re sitting by the traditional floor-to-ceiling windows.
With its wooden floors, white walls and large windows, the whole place has an echoing, stark ambience, especially as it was a third full on the day that I visited. This is broken up mainly by half a dozen semi-circular booths, which consist of a high-backed leather bench seat arcing round one half of the table, producing conspiratorial enclaves for a group to drink, eat and chat.
There was certainly plenty of the latter going on as we arrived, although there was also a notable lack of personnel at the front desk, leading to an uncomfortable wait for someone to appear and take us to the table we’d reserved. Eventually we were shown to a small table, but after some comic gurning and a stand-off we eventually managed to upgrade to one of the booths (“OK, as we’re not full and it’s quite late, but we don’t normally do this so please don’t tell anyone else.” My lips are sealed).
The grill and smokehouse part of the menu is quite a small part of the food on offer, but from all the pre-launch hype and their chosen name they’re obviously proud of their Josper grill, and so they should be because the latest must-have cheffie gadget – Gordon, Heston and Michel all have one, as does the Savoy Grill – costs a small fortune, starting at £12,000. To make sure that the raw ingredients don’t let the side down, they use Castle May Estate beef that’s been dry-aged for at least 28 days.
However, as a Josper grill produces a pretty standard end product we decided to roam around the rest of the menu in search of some more enlightening clues to the prowess of Twenty Princes Street’s head chef, Tony Sarton. Ignoring the seafood options on the “alternative act” part of the menu (we were just back from the West Coast and were suffering from seafood overload), I started with the cauliflower pannacotta with Blue Murder croquettes, Arran mustard, oats and quince, while Bea went for the locally foraged woodland mushrooms on toasted spinach bread with a poached quail’s egg.
Mine was unquestionably the pick of the pair, and was a dish that contained far more expertise and a surer touch than I’d expected. Small but packed with cauliflower flavour, the pannacotta was a velveteen-smooth revelation completed by a phalanx of small croquettes that contained just enough of this gorgeous Tain-made blue cheese to give it distinctive twang. In all, it was one of the most assured starters I’ve had all year.
Bea’s mushrooms, on the other hand, were fine but failed the ultimate test in that I could (and have) done far better at home. It’s not that the dish was proactively bad, but it was ordinary, although the wonderful spinach bread did its best to raise it to another level.
When it came to the main course, I also had by far the better of the deal. My huge slug of ox cheek with black-eyed bean and chipotle stew with soured cream would be perfect in the middle of February, but even on a balmy late August evening it was damned good. The meat was beautifully tender, while the bean chaser and dash of soured cream made for sensible accompaniments.
Sadly, Bea’s roasted Hebridean salmon with a homemade tagliatelle of cockles and marsh samphire was a curiously schizophrenic dish that didn’t come close to living up to the commendable simplicity of my main course. The fillet of salmon had been perfectly cooked, but rather than coming with the spaghetti vongole-style accompaniment she had envisaged from the menu, it sat on a morass of creamy, inedibly heavy tagliatelle that contained a couple of clams and lots of lovely samphire, but which was drowned out by a deluge of cream.
Pudding restored our faith in the place, however. Bea had a dish that was basically a contemporary deconstruction of the chef’s three favourite biscuits – HobNob, Jammie Dodger and Custard Cream – and which, unusually for such a clever-clever concept, hit the spot perfectly. My poached peaches in spiced raspberry soup with crème fraiche and amaretti crisp was light, innovative yet understated, and I would happily order it again.
I had low expectations of Twenty Princes Street, especially once I’d come to the rather dog-eared front entrance and then found no-one at the front desk. Yet by the end I was won over, partly by our ceaselessly cheery waitress but mainly by the unmistakable signs that Sarton is pulling out all the stops to avoid the usual culinary clichés and produce interesting combinations that – with the exception of the stodgy tagliatelle – are both accessible and suit the imposing Victorian surroundings. By and large, he has succeeded, too.
• Twenty Princes Street Grill & Smokehouse, 20 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2AN; 0131-556 4901, www.twentyprincesstreet.co.uk)