They say acceptance is key in dealing with hardship.
And I try to remind myself of this as platters of mouth-watering oysters pass me by at the White Horse, by now a stalwart of Edinburgh’s restaurant scene after opening at the tail end of 2017.
While the bivalve is among my favourite foods, let’s just say that the last two times we have met (both at the same London restaurant) have, er, not ended well. And while I refuse to give up hope, still persistently and inexpertly Googling food allergy articles, I strongly suspect our separation is permanent.
It almost goes without saying that the White Horse’s name takes a cue from the sailors’ nickname for the gleaming crests that appear on waves, but I was less familiar with the site’s intriguing history. It claims to be the oldest inn on the Royal Mile, dating back to 1742, and sits at the head of White Horse Close, named after Mary Queen of Scots’ favourite gee-gee that was stabled nearby.
Oysters are off the menu for me, but here they come in either “natural” form from say Lindisfarne and Loch Fyne – or “dressed”, for example grilled with nduja and pickled fennel. There is also “buck a shuck” – a £1-an-oyster happy hour at certain times on Monday to Thursday. I’ll press my envious face up against the window pane as you all tuck in.
But I have little to complain about with the range offered by the rest of the seafood-dominated small plates menu.
My friend and I decide to get a couple of sides. The Hasselback potatoes with curried mayo, and pickled fennel and grapefruit slaw with roasted pumpkin seeds particularly pique our curiosity.
We then dive into the fish dishes, choosing sesame tuna with grapefruit and nasturtium, smoked mackerel with pickled beetroot and horseradish cream, and crab and lobster toast with chilli, blood orange and avocado.
The restaurant is decorated in the same dark charcoal-heavy, almost industrial colour scheme seen in its sister restaurant, Chop House, which specialises in steak, and there are seats for dining at the bar as well as tables at a handful of booth options.
Service is impeccably friendly if a little slow at times – we visit early on a Saturday evening.
The monkfish arrives first, two tightly-packed skewers that come with a generous dressing of satay sauce that is a surprisingly effective partner to the fish.
The crab and lobster toast combines two of my favourite types of seafood, and I am not disappointed by the flavour of the seafood complemented by the light heat, acidity and varied texture provided by its accompaniments.
My only cavil would be that it’s a small portion – and feels smaller still at some £12.50.
'Tasty and tender'
But seafood is not the kind of meal where frugality is a sensible seafaring strategy, in my view – buy cheap pay dear, as they say. My dining partner and I then each take one dish to ourselves. She opts for the mackerel, an artwork of glinting, light-reflecting silver-skinned fish served alongside dayglo fuchsia discs of beetroot. Her verdict: “Very tasty and tender.”
I sequester the tuna, which emerges as my favourite dish of the meal, compact but dense, squareish slices of the fish seared delicately and generously coated in sesame seeds, but the vast majority left – as it should be – pinkish maroon in the centre. Accompanied by the grapefruit, which I chase around the plate to scoop up every last mouthful, it well and truly sings.
Our sides have also played welcome, complementary background roles, the potato providing a lightly spicy carb base, and the fennel and grapefruit salad a revelatory light and zingy acidic top note and excellent counterfoil to everything we order.
The wine comes with a 500ml carafe option – can more restaurants start doing this please – and the Castelbello Bianco is reasonably priced at about £15 for this size.
As for desserts, we share the rhubarb fool – long, railway sleeper slices of the fruit cooked al dente and served with custard, ice cream and meringue, a deliciously sweet and tangy end to the meal.
The table next to us, I couldn’t help but notice, was tucking into some of the artisan cheese selection, supplied by famous cheesemonger IJ Mellis, with three or five kinds on offer.
At the start of the meal I was envious of the oyster platters. But at the end I conclude that we have had a shipshape, high-calibre meal showcasing a haul of excellent seafood. My money’s on this White Horse – a real thoroughbred.