Restaurant review: Whiski, High Street, Edinburgh
‘WOODEN and worn, the place has an unselfconsciously couthy and welcoming aura’
I HAve learned the nice way that just because a business is on the Royal Mile, Scotland’s most-visited street, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily a tourist trap. Wedgwood, Monteiths, the Witchery, Angels with Bagpipes, Creelers, Ondine and Dubh Prais are serious restaurants, all good enough to prosper elsewhere in the city, but which do exceptionally well because of the constant stream of visitors on their doorsteps.
Which is why I decided to give Whiski a chance. One of Edinburgh’s most successful food and drink companies, Whiski started off on the Royal Mile, on the site of what used to be Clever Dick’s pub, back in 2007, and the brand expanded with the opening last summer on the Mound of its three interconnecting shop fronts – a bar, a bistro and a whisky shop – looking down across Edinburgh. With live music most evenings (Nigel Kennedy recently played there), a range of 300 whiskies and a seemingly endless slew of whisky-related awards (which includes last year’s Whisky Bar of the Year), the place can rightly judge itself to have been a runaway success.
The original bar and restaurant on the High Street remains hugely popular, with the whole uisge beatha juggernaut steaming ahead and the bar being invariably full to overflowing. But with the beverage side of the equation sorted out, Whiski is now aggressively pushing its restaurant, with a revamped menu and a promise that its kitchen “specialises in fresh Scottish food using the very best local produce”.
I had imagined something along the lines of the Café Royal, Holyrood 9A or King’s Wark, three of Edinburgh’s more evocative and successful bar-restaurants, and was pleasantly surprised when we walked into the back of Whiski. Wooden and worn, the place has an unselfconsciously couthy and welcoming aura, and even if it would be better suited to a midwinter’s night, it was fine for a dreich midsummer’s lunchtime too.
The menu was equally familiar, but rather less welcoming. There were eight starters and more than a dozen mains, but there was absolutely nothing to set the pulses racing: all were conventional and unadulterated pub grub choices –with dishes like Cullen skink, bruschetta and smoked mackerel pâté to start, with steaks, mussels and comfort choices such as sausage and mash, steak and ale pie and a range of burgers for the main courses. That said, this is a pub-restaurant that boasts of its award-winning producers and that all its dishes are prepared on the premises, so we reserved judgment. Clearly, the final verdict would depend on the quality of the ingredients and the ability of the kitchen staff.
I started with home-made fishcakes while John, ever a healthy soul, opted for goat’s cheese and red onion tart. It was immediately clear that I had made the better choice. Although my single, albeit pretty substantial, fishcake was slightly overcooked and came with too little of the accompanying, sickly sweet chilli sauce, it was nevertheless packed with smoked salmon and haddock, and no more than the regulation amount of potato. It wasn’t going to win any awards, and at £6.50 it was pricey, but it was a reasonable start.
John’s tart, however, was abject. About the width of a small coffee cup, it, I’d be willing to bet, had been microwaved. The soggy pastry was not the end of its troubles, though; where a good goat’s cheese has a sharp, almost piquant, edge, this was disarmingly bland. To make matters worse, Jean-Michel Gauffre’s peerless La Garrigue restaurant, with one of the best goat’s cheese tarts in the city, is a two-minute walk down the hill and serves a two-course lunch for £12.50 – while this diminutive lunchtime starter was a hefty £6.50. John was, it’s fair to say, not impressed.
If his man-sized main course of venison was better, it was by no means faultless. The jus was bland and the vegetables watery and overdone, and the whole lot could have done with being a lot warmer.
My salmon, with a lake of bérnaise sauce, and mashed potato was better, but the salmon was still a little overcooked and the whole ensemble was still ferociously priced at £14.
My parting shot was a whisky cheesecake. Apart from a complete absence of any taste of whisky, it was otherwise good. John had the sticky toffee pudding, as recommended by our waitress, and paid it the ultimate back-handed compliment of saying it was “the kind of thing you get from M&S, so it was OK for a pub”.
If pudding was OK for a pub, the bill was anything but. Three glasses of wine between us, two three-course lunches and service came to just under £80. We contrasted that with some of the other places we could have eaten locally, not least Gauffre’s fantastic little bistro, where we could have got a three-course lunch for £15 each.
We both like the Whiski bar, with its old-world charm and endless shelves of our national drink. But when it comes to its restaurant, no matter what way you carve it up, ordinary food at extraordinary prices on the nation’s most popular historic street can be summed up in two damning words: tourist trap.
Whiski 119 High Street, Edinburgh (0131-556 3095, www.whiskibar.co.uk)
Starters £4.90-£6.95 Mains £9.45-£23.95 Puddings £5.50-£6.20 Rating 4/10
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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