THE bill for a fine dining menu barely covers the cost of the ingredients, writes Richard Bath
350 West Granton Rd, Edinburgh, EH5 1QE (0131-559 4030, The Apprentice)
Lunch (Tuesday-Friday, from 12.15pm), £7.95 for 2 courses, £9.95 for 3 courses. Four-course dinner (Wednesday-Thursday, from 6.15pm, last orders 7.30pm) £14.95 (£10 for Jan-Feb). Only open in term time.
If I had a pound coin for every time I’ve been asked for my favourite restaurant, I’d easily be rich enough to dine at all 16 Scottish Michelin-starred restaurants. Alternatively, if I could pool all that cash and eat every week at the best-value Scottish restaurant I’ve come across in my travels, then I could probably eat like a lord until the end of my days.
Plenty of places provide excellent value for money, but none of them come close to The Apprentice in Edinburgh’s Granton district. It is staffed by the third-year catering students from Edinburgh College, who are overseen by their tutors. A four-course fine dining menu costs £15, including an amuse bouche, coffee and petits fours – and for the first two months of the year, it’s just a tenner. That barely covers the cost of the ingredients.
The Apprentice is only open weekday lunchtimes and two early evenings a week. Hospitality lecturer Richard Morris, formerly of Roxburgh and Turnberry, and his five HND students do the front of house and waitering; grill tutor Dougie Tully has eight SVQ3 students doing the savoury courses, while legendary pastry chef Boyd Stewart has 15 SVQ3 students making the sweet dishes. By their third year, most students work full-time at top-end venues and spend a couple of days per week finishing their qualifications.
The 50-cover restaurant at Edinburgh College’s Granton site is a surprisingly intimate, low-ceilinged dining room. It’s supposed to be like a “proper” commercial restaurant, and in virtually all respects that’s the case. There are frosted windows bearing The Apprentice logo, sotto voce lighting, modern furniture and a bar that wouldn’t look out of place in George Street.
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But it was the menu, complete with references to advanced cooking techniques (sous-vide) and ambitious combinations (cherry and elderflower reduction, or lemon meringue and iced tea), which really took us aback. There was clearly no lack of self-belief in the dishes on offer.
First up was a selection of home-made breads, including some gorgeously soft pesto-infused focaccia, followed by a selection of three amuse bouches. The best was a shot glass of pineapple and champagne “soup”, which was followed by a roasted field mushroom stuffed with crunchy couscous and topped with a cherry tomato, and finally a slice of thin-cut French toast lathered with caramelised red onion and small cubes of goats’ cheese. It was a solid debut.
Our starters were a disparate bunch. The most elegantly presented was my disarmingly simple citrus fish skewers, which comprised big chunks of white fish (ling, I think) cooked in citrus juice and combined with ripe mango. Torty’s roasted pigeon breasts with pistachio, orange tapioca and dried fruit paste also worked well, with the succulent meat contrasting nicely with the orange flavours in particular. Less impressive was Bea’s goujons of chicken in herb breadcrumbs with caesar salad, which looked and tasted like pub-chain fodder. Kurt’s spicy Thai beef skewers with dipping sauce were pleasantly punchy, but had a curious texture that reminded Kurt, a former stalker and restaurant owner, of ground venison.
Our soup courses were similarly mixed. Bea and I opted for the wild mushroom velouté, which was a little underseasoned. Kurt and Torty chose the lobster bisque and were disappointed: sure, it contained plenty of small bits of lobster, but it was too sweet and too liquid, and so got the first thumbs down of the evening.
Our main courses, though, were a pronounced step up, both in ambition and execution. Kurt’s ling with Mediterranean flavours was extremely well received, while my rabbit with baby leeks and pears was beautifully presented, and covered a whole range of cuts, including what looked like confit leg, even if it was just a little overdone. Bea’s Dijon and salvia sous-vide tenderloin of pork and braised pork belly with a port reduction, cauliflower purée and sautéed root vegetables was another complicated dish, but this time the quality of the dark brown, intensely flavoured tenderloin made it memorable. So, too, was Torty’s pot roast of goose leg with cider and apple, which was accompanied by pan-fried goose breast with a cherry and elderflower reduction so rich and cloying, it coated the meat and lent it a sweet, deeply percussive flavour.
Bea’s egg custard tart and strawberry arctic was a good end to her meal, even if my overcooked soufflé, which didn’t taste of the promised prune or Armagnac and was served with bland tutti frutti ice-cream, was a disappointment. Torty and Kurt once again had the best of the bunch with an amazing chocolate creation the size a tennis ball, coated in copper, full of orange and grapefruit chocolate mousse, and placed atop frozen chocolate soil. It was a remarkable tour de force from the young pastry chefs. So, too, for that matter was Kurt’s pudding, a revisionist take on haggis and tatties in which the haggis was a sweet dish that was more like clootie dumpling, while the mash contained so much glucose, it was no longer savoury.
We rounded off with coffee and the most impressive display of chocolate petits fours I’ve seen for yonks.
After such an interesting meal, it was a pleasure to raise a toast to Scotland’s aspiring young chefs – with a house wine at only £12.
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