The Lioness of Leith
21-25 Duke Street, Leith, Edinburgh (0131-629 0580)
Starters £3.50-5.30 Main courses £7.40-£12.60 Puddings £6-£7 (cheeseboard £10)
The Irish comic has family in Edinburgh and knows the whole city – and not just the bits populated by luvvies during August – surprisingly well. One of the highlights of his act used to be a schtick, complete with worryingly accurate accents, about how Leith Walk is a vortex between parallel worlds: at the top of the Walk you have the New Town types whose first names are surnames like Campbell and Cameron, while if you walk half a mile to the Foot of the Walk you meet a netherworld of knuckledraggers who can hardly remember their name, let alone spell it. As Byrne replied when asked by a magazine for his secret tip to Edinburgh: “Don’t look people in the eye for too long outside the shopping centre in Leith.”
The comic played Leith for laughs, and got plenty of them because, back then, Michelin-star restaurants and waterside condos notwithstanding, there was a kernel of truth to the jibes. There still is: of an evening at the weekend, the shopping centre at the Foot of the Walk can be an eye-opener, and even as workers head off to the office in the morning there is often a knot of half-cut smokers congregating outside the pub on Duke Street.
Yet the whole place is gradually dragging itself up by its bootstraps and there are unmistakable signs of the gentrification that was supposed to accompany the arrival of the trams a thousand years ago. The old and long-empty Leith Academy is being renovated into swish apartments overlooking Leith Links, the huge derelict nightclub at the foot of the walk is surrounded in scaffolding as it’s redeveloped, and there’s a slew of bars – as opposed to old boys’ boozers – popping up all over the place.
The latest of these bars is the Lioness of Leith, on the site of the avowedly old-school Mintos Bar. A self-consciously bohemian enclave and self-acclaimed “bampot and trouble free zone,” this new gastropub occupies a corner site between Tesco and the Links, and as well as old wooden floors and muted colours on the walls, it features eclectic decor that encompasses everything from neon lights, a shiny disco ball and pop art to elaborate cornicing and chandeliers.
The atmosphere can be similarly schizophrenic. At the weekends, when there’s a DJ playing, the place is stowed out with drinkers until the early hours, but during the week it sheds its glad rags and gets back to the job of being an honest-to-goodness gastropub. It retains some of the more blingy touches from the weekend – the trademark lemon sherbert cocktail is a favourite all week, for example – but the food and craft beers now take pride of place.
At first sight the menu is surprisingly varied, with a dozen starters/sides/salads plus specials, and seven main courses plus a couple of specials. There’s a notable emphasis on vegetarian options, plus some commendably sensible prices that mean you can have a pint and a main course for little more than a tenner, putting the Lioness well within the category of everyday eating rather than a treat.
For all the vast number of starters on offer, we struggled to find anything that really pushed our buttons, Bea eventually settling for the tapas staple of boquerones (anchovies marinated in vinegar and olive oil) on toast with fresh basil and sun-blushed tomato pesto, while I opted for the wild mushrooms topped with melted brie on toast. Now I love wild mushrooms on toast, but this was pretty poor fare: not enough mushrooms, plus brie that was barely melted. I certainly wouldn’t order this again. Bea likes boquerones but there simply weren’t enough of them, so the texture of the bread completely dominated the experience.
Despite the great atmosphere in the place, we were rather dejected by our starters, but were soon buoyed by two main courses that were far closer to the sort of standard we’d expected. Bea’s wiener schnitzel, in particular, was absolutely perfect: there are lots of restaurants in Austria that could learn lessons from the Lioness chef on this front. My breast of guinea fowl with a braised shallot casserole and pommes dauphinoise was an ever trickier dish to get right, but with two tender slabs of meat, a beautifully judged sauce and a brick of dauphinoise, this was a great winter warmer. The price of £12.60 – the heftiest on the menu – was pretty decent for a city centre eaterie.
By now we were thoroughly confused. How could a kitchen which served such poor starters provide such top-notch mains? The mystery wasn’t solved by pudding either: a bland polenta cake with mulled plums and orange mascarpone cream on one hand being more than counteracted by a superb dark chocolate delice on the other.
For all the culinary confusion, there’s no doubting that once you’ve managed to navigate yourself around the menu, Leithers now have a great local gastropub on their doorstep. Throw in exceptionally friendly and laid-back staff, a buzzing ambience and prices to suit most pockets and the only possible conclusion is that this cat is here to stay.