FOR the best part of a decade, I lived just up the road from Iglu, and I went there from time to time. It was, I always thought, a nice alternative wee pub, particularly in the summer when, despite the premises being down a back street, the sun somehow forced its way in to bathe the wooden-floored and white-walled interior in an unfeasibly soft light. In the winter, however, it suffered from its proximity to the legendary Kay’s Bar, the Tardis-like boozer that is about 100 yards away and which sucks in New Town drinkers like a beer-fuelled black hole.
There has always been something rather wholesome about Iglu. The place trumpets its green credentials and has every right to. Back in 2001, it felt like a rather contrived gimmick that everything was organically and sustainably produced, right down to the beer, but in hindsight it turns out that Iglu was just ahead of the curve. Even now, it is exceedingly rare in its decision to source all its beer from the stoically organic Black Isle brewery and its cider from the Williams Brothers’ Thistly Cross stable in Dunbar (all spirits are either Scottish or organic, or preferably both, as in the case of the excellent Demijohn liqueurs).
Iglu’s commitment to being sustainable, organic and Scottish doesn’t end at its booze, however. Currently more than 90 per cent of the fresh ingredients are Scottish and organic, with the intention of pushing that figure up to 100 per cent as soon as possible. The list of suppliers is a who’s who of the nation’s top artisan producers: Hugh Grierson, Connage, Whitmuir Farm, Macleod Organics, Gigha Halibut, Greencity Wholefoods and Highland Game; they’re all there and all contributed to Iglu being named Scottish Sustainable Restaurant of the Year 2014.
The goodness isn’t only on the plate because Iglu is one of the most laudable gastronomic projects in Scotland. In fact the sentiments behind the place are verging on saintly: it’s currently operating as a social enterprise in which profits go to charitable donations and to fund training and courses in sustainable cooking.
If that makes the place sound as if it’s run by a high-intensity evangelical sect, nothing could be further from the truth. From the relaxed service to the mismatched furniture and entertainingly eclectic playlist (Barclay James Harvest followed by Israeli folk rocker Asaf Avidan: seriously?) the whole atmosphere is low-key and enjoyably laid back. As for the building itself, hidden just off Howe Street in the New Town, the top level of this two-storey gastropub is a 30-seater restaurant which is used in the evenings when they have enough bookings; otherwise you’re eating in the 24-seater bar area downstairs.
That was where Jamie and I found ourselves on a gloriously sunny midweek lunchtime, sitting by the window and watching the world go by. I hadn’t eaten at Iglu for several years, but knew of its reputation for being very good one day and distinctly average the next. We’d come hoping to hit the mother lode but had steeled ourselves for slim pickings and, sadly, that’s pretty much what we got.
The first thing that struck us was that there was no lunch menu, so we were choosing from starters at £5-£6, main courses at around £15 and puddings of £7. That’s all very well in the evening, but seems very pricey at lunchtime when you consider that Tom Kitchin’s nearby Scran & Scallie – the benchmark for gastropub quality, where the only downside is the à la carte cost – does a three-course set lunch for £15.
Unperturbed, particularly after some good chat from our very cheery waitress, we got on with ordering and, after a substantial hiatus, were rewarded with the arrival of two starters: Jamie’s organic veggie soup of the day, and my crispy squid. Neither was particularly impressive, although the squid – which turned out to be simply half a dozen rings of squid in breadcrumbs, with a salad and squidge of aioli for flavouring – was by far the better of the two.
Jamie’s potato and leek soup, however, was definitely not what he expected or wanted. Extremely watery while simultaneously over-spiced and over-seasoned, it was as unsatisfying as it was salty. A country boy used to hearty comfort food, this got an emphatic thumbs down.
If his main course of chicken and ham pie topped with mash and cheese was better, it was a marginal call. This time the texture and consistency was up to scratch, but once again the dish was totally over-spiced. By now I was beginning to wonder whether young Jamie has a penchant for bland food and would be offended by anything that wasn’t made to his idiosyncratic requirements, but a quick check confirmed that his assessment was indeed on the money.
My main course was the best of a bad bunch, but even that was a qualified success. I’d chosen the fish of the day, which was hake, with beetroot, potatoes cooked in white wine and saffron, all served with a rhubarb dressing. The pearly-white fish was perfect: a decent fillet, it was gorgeously tender and moist, while the beetroot was firm to the bite. The potatoes were, however, overdone, flaky and quite bland, while the dressing was nonexistent. All in all, it was a dish that just missed the mark.
The same could not be said for my pudding of chocolate tree mousse: this didn’t just miss the mark, it was so far wide it was in the next county. The accompanying nut brittle was the highlight, but the mousse was liquid. Apparently the chef had thought portions had been made the night before and had only found out his mistake at lunchtime, so rather than mentioning the point and allowing me to make an alternative choice, I was served a half-prepared pudding.
If all of that sounds condemnatory, it’s not meant to be. I have great affection for Iglu and enormous admiration for their aims, but good intentions without the execution amount to nothing. It was, sadly, no surprise when I found out later that day that Iglu was on the market.
Iglu 2b Jamaica Street, Edinburgh EH3 6HH (0131-476 5333, www.theiglu.com)
Starters £5-£6 Main courses £14-£21 Puddings £6-£7 (cheeseboard £7-£10)