I ONCE interviewed that prolific purveyor of Aga sagas Rosamunde Pilcher and asked her if she has a pet hate. She’s had an eventful life and clearly has a fertile imagination so I was expecting something interesting, perhaps even profound. Instead, she admitted that her pet hate isn’t famine or pestilence, that she doesn’t ruminate on world peace. What really gets her goat, so to speak, is pheasant casserole. For city slickers that may sound trite, almost silly, but for anyone who’s lived in the countryside and had to munch their way through cardboard-dry chunks of pheasant, there would be an instant glimmer of recognition.
I like cooking, and enjoy working with most of the critters that live in our countryside, whether it’s venison, hare, rabbit, partridge, pigeon, goose or grouse. But pheasant? No thanks. No matter what I do to it – whether I’ve stuck it in a chicken brick or tried to hide it in a curry – it’s never worked.
All that changed recently when, for a friend’s birthday, a bunch of us went out to a new restaurant called Blackfriars. I groaned inwardly when our main courses arrived and a pheasant breast was put in front of me, but antipathy turned to wonderment as I ate. This was fantastic: moist, succulent and with none of that tangy metallic aftertaste that made my attempts at cooking pheasant so horribly memorable.
This was, in short, clearly somewhere to check out on a more forensic and less alcoholic basis at a later stage. I certainly liked what I’d seen on that first visit: occupying the site of what was, for many years, the vegetarian restaurant Black Bo’s, Blackfriars is in the heart of the Old Town, just off the Royal Mile and next door to a bar of the same name. The interior is understated but functional: one wall has been taken back to the brick, the others are whitewashed, while the floors are bare and wooden. It feels contemporary, but not oppressively so.
Blackfriars wears its style lightly, probably because the place is owned by an Aussie, Georgie Binder, which explains the down-to-earth ambience, and her partner, Andrew Macdonald, who switched from a career in fine art to being a chef, which goes some way to explaining the tasteful surroundings. Macdonald is equally minimalist when it comes to the describing the dishes on the menu and the lengthy specials board, the summaries verging on terse – a typical example would be: “brill, cockles, mussels, potatoes”.
If the preliminary visit was excellent and the mood music was perfect, when it came to the food this time Blackfriars didn’t disappoint. A curious Bea thought long and hard about starting with the grilled radicchio, beetroot and blood orange but instead decided to kick off with the equally eccentric combination of home-made chorizo with lentils and fried egg. It proved to be a beautifully balanced dish of comfort food in which the surprisingly mild and loosely packed chorizo meshed beautifully with the meaty lentils and fried egg.
My starter of cured mackerel with apple and radish could hardly have been more different in conception or execution. Half a dozen strips of Scandinavian-style lightly cured fish were arranged with baby radishes and tiny cubes of apple to produce a light, fresh, zesty counterpoint to the stunningly soft flesh of our most under-rated fish. This lovely dish was arranged with the sort of care and attention to detail you’d expect in a Michelin-star restaurant, and was as innovative and unusual as it was successful.
Macdonald’s next trick was to show his mastery of cooking meat. Bea’s main course of lamb was absolutely perfect: slightly fatty, crimson and bursting with flavour. Accompanied by Jerusalem artichokes, pumpkin and red cabbage, it made for an impressive main course. I dipped into the specials board, confirming what I’d experienced on my previous visit as soon as I tried my perfectly cooked partridge. Accompanied by pearl barley, kale and hazelnuts, it maintained the high standards already set by the kitchen.
We rounded off with two excellent puddings. Bea’s pear and quince tart with a spiced pear sorbet that smelled like Christmas was a good start, but was matched by a huge, dense slab of chocolate cake that came with a gorgeous hazelnut praline and a malt ice cream that was disappointingly bland, making it the only tiny bum note in what was otherwise a joyously impressive ensemble.
It came as no surprise when we found out afterwards that Macdonald’s last two posts were at First Coast and the Gardener’s Cottage, two good value and laid-back venues that are beloved of the capital’s foodies because they take their food – and not themselves – terribly seriously. Blackfriars’ city centre position means that it’s notably more expensive than First Coast, yet it still deserves to be put in the same bracket as those two outstanding restaurants and will surely be a stalwart of Edinburgh’s eating-out scene for years to come. I certainly hope so.
57-61 Blackfriars Street, Edinburgh EH1 1NB (0131 558 8684, blackfriarsedinburgh.co.uk)
Main courses £15-£23