PORTOBELLO is Edinburgh’s answer to Brooklyn. So said a colleague of mine. Pah, I thought. But, on a recent visit I kind of understood what she meant.
Imagine that black cabs are yellow, cats are rats, and wheelie bins are trash cans, and this neighbourhood is almost as trendy as that creative New York district, with its farmers’ markets, an Earthy produce store, and tons of independent and bohemian shops.
There isn’t even a Starbucks yet.
To add to the villagey vibe, in the former premises of Barelio Wine Bar, there’s new cafe and bistro The Skylark, which has been opened by the people behind the Word of Mouth cafe in Leith.
It’s been named after a Sixties pleasure boat that used to offer trips out from Portobello sands. Charming, non?
Open all day, this place is relaxed, beachy and insouciant. Vintage teacups are presented on mismatched saucers, Sunday-afternoon radio tunes from the likes of Lily Allen play on the stereo, and the walls are stripped back to naked red brick, or crackled and peeling paint.
According to our young waitress they had to remove four layers of false ceiling until they exposed the original, full-height number, and they made tables out of some of the discarded beams.
There’s an open kitchen area and, in the evening, there’s a casual menu with eight savoury options and a couple of sides.
Order your food up at the bar, where they sell local ales and Edinburgh Gin, and they’ll bring it over when it’s ready.
Us greedies went for two main courses as starters – the leek and mushroom quiche (£5.50) and a roasted beetroot and butternut squash salad (£8.50).
The former was buttery and Gruyerey, with a snappy crust. As far as quiches go, it would command a red rosette at any town fête. On the side came a decent salad featuring lamb’s lettuce and the like.
My option would have been great, if the wad of goats cheese on the top hadn’t been burnt. I like to think they hadn’t noticed, or they wouldn’t have served it.
This was the first time that I’d smelled a charred version of this variety of fromage. It was a pore-permeating stench, like a pit bull had chewed on some melted polystyrene, then yawned in one’s face.
Anyway, once I’d excised its blackened surface, this offering was nice enough. And, as long as I didn’t breathe through my nose, I could enjoy the rest of this dish, which featured crumbled walnuts, mixed bouncy leaves, cherry tomatoes, butternut squash, sugary knobs of beetroot, cucumber struts and a squirt of balsamic reduction. Good.
For under a tenner each, the main courses were spot on. The fish stew (£9.95) featured lumps of cod, potato, prawns and indigo-shelled roly-poly mussels, all of which were brewing in a rich, russet-coloured broth. There was a chevron of chilli-flecked rouille on the top, and half a baguette (the size of a chair leg) on the side. It was a hearty and rustic plateful that could have easily fed two of the sort of people who hold down outdoor jobs.
Our corn-fed chicken breast (£9.95) was great too – a big, juicy piece of char-skinned poultry. It came with stacks of cress-strewn couscous, which was blinged up by fat raisins and chickpeas, and moisturised with pan jus and balsamic. It was accompanied by a shot glass that contained a cocktail of chunky and fresh-tasting raita, as well as a not-too-hot tomato, apricot and chilli chutney.
Homely comfort eating.
For pudding, you can choose from an array of cakey treats, which are displayed under glass, like museum treasures.
I went for the hazelnut and white chocolate blondie (£1.80). “Is that a chunk of bread?” asked my dining partner, when this landed on the table.
However, its brutish appearance was deceptive. With a light and fluffy cladding, this mixture was studded with chunks of chocolate and had a good nutty taste. Happy days.
The cherry and almond friand (£1.20) was in disguise too. Rather than the dainty little cylinder that you might expect with this genre of gateau, it was a flattened tile. Tasted lovely though – it’s our new best friand.
We had to do a double take when we saw the bill. All that food, and that’s all we had to pay? Pockets still heavy with shrapnel, we skipped out of The Skylark, and off to the beach.
Portobello: concrete jungle where dreams are made.