Restaurant review: The Apiary, Edinburgh

The Apiary on Edinburgh's Newington Road. Picture: Julie Bull
The Apiary on Edinburgh's Newington Road. Picture: Julie Bull
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IF YOU’VE got a formula that works, the most sensible thing is to expand it until you hit the glass ceiling.

The Apiary

33 Newington Road, Edinburgh EH6 5JD (0131-668 4999,

Lunch £9.50 for two courses Pre-theatre (two courses, to be finished by 7pm): £15 Starters £5-£6.50 Main courses £11-£18 Puddings £4-£4.50 (cheese board £7)

Rating: 6/10

Single-restaurant chefs such as Andrew Fairlie and Paul Kitching are becoming increasingly rare as every would-be culinary entrepreneur from Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart to Mark Greenaway and Jamie Oliver suddenly sprouts extra restaurants, pubs or bistros. Ditto chains like Two Fat Ladies, Chaopraya, Chop Chop, Café Marlayne and Café Andaluz, which look like sparky local restaurants, but which are would-be chains quietly expanding their number of sites.

Deep in student land on the south side of Edinburgh, another successful local restaurant has taken the decision to spread its wings. It seems like yesterday that Three Birds in Bruntsfield was itself a newcomer, wowing the locals with keenly priced set menus that avoided the usual Scottish contemporary culinary clichés and which provided a huge choice of gluten-free and vegetarian dishes.

It’s mildly surprising, therefore, to find that the team behind Three Birds has already taken the opportunity to buzz across to Newington, where they have taken over the site formerly occupied by the Metropole Café. Like all the most successful operations, they have imported their values and gastronomic offering wholesale, so the menu at their new restaurant, The Apiary has the same blend of homespun charm and rustic options as the Bruntsfield mothership. Housed in a spacious former bank building on the busy main road (there’s still an enormous walk-in safe next to the loos), it also has the same laid-back ambience that has done so much to make Three Birds such a success.

I found myself at Apiary twice in as many days, sampling the lunch menu and then the dinner menu. The first of the two was a runaway success: my little pot of curried kidneys with artisan bread was absolutely fantastic; my main course of braised ox cheek with chilli, star anise and liquorice root with rice and pak choi was a melt-in-the-mouth antidote to the rubbish weather raging outside; while my chocolate brioche and butter pudding with orange zest, chocolate and stem ginger ice cream and custard was a little stodgy but still good enough to order it again. But while the quality was decent and the portion sizes perfectly judged, it was the searingly competitive price that really held the attention: £9.50 for two courses, plus £4.25 for pudding.

We’d ended up lunching at the Apiary at short notice when I was off duty, but after that introduction a return journey for the evening experience was clearly a priority, and so the next evening I was back, this time with a couple of reviewing partners. What we found was notably different. Sure, the environment was the same, as was the informal, chatty approach of the staff, but this time there were some key differences. The specials board, for instance, was twice as big, as was the number of options on the main menu, although the prices were still pretty keen, with a three-course meal for £20 if you ordered judiciously, though pricier options were also available.

We quickly ordered and waited for the magic to start. We had developed high expectations as soon as we witnessed the couple on the neighbouring table sharing a gargantuan 600g slab of ribeye steak cooked in bone marrow butter that smelled divine, but in truth the outcome from our starters was mixed. Bea felt that the goat’s cheese which accompanied the nuggets of seared venison saddle on grilled field mushroom with capers, smoked paprika mousse and spring onion oil overpowered all the other ingredients, but I tried it and found it to be a pretty well-judged combination that I regretted not ordering. Ruth’s grilled halloumi salad with roast veg, potato rosti and hummus-dressed leaves sounded great but was by common consent boring. My ham hock hash cake with poached egg and hollandaise looked overcooked but wasn’t and turned out to be exactly the sort of stodgy comfort food that I often crave at this time of year.

Ruth had by far the best of the main courses, her slices of gorgeously moist spiced lamb rump with mint yoghurt, Moroccan aubergine and flatbread more than atoning for her bland opening course. Bea and I, however, fared less well as we went off menu. I had opted for the pan-fried partridge breast with confit legs, roast potatoes, creamed savoy cabbage and veal jus from the specials menu, but found the meat overcooked and tough; Bea chose the fillet of salmon with green vegetable curry and a coconut sauce and found an otherwise impressive dish undermined by a bed of greasy rice.

Pudding was a step back in the right direction. Bea chose the clementine and butterscotch mess, which came with meringue, butterscotch ice cream, ginger snap ice cream and stewed oranges, and was served in sundae style. It looked like a retro creamfest, but appearances can be deceptive: this was fresher, lighter and less saccharine than it looked, and found an appreciative audience. The same went for Ruth’s beautifully moist warm coconut and cardamom sponge with Malibu and lime syrup and vanilla ice cream.

The real eye-opener, though, was my ice cream slider with choc nougat wafers, mainly because two of the ice cream options were blue cheese or peanut butter and jelly. I opted for the blue cheese ice cream and found myself with a super-creamy pudding which polarised opinion: I love blue cheese and quite liked it (although not enough to finish more than half of it), Ruth immediately gagged with an alarming degree of venom, while Bea merely disliked it.

So, what to make of Three Birds Mk II? The Apiary is well on its way to surviving that difficult first year, although the service could do with being sharper, the lack of parking nearby is an issue and the kitchen needs to work on its consistency. Fundamentally, though, the ambience and imaginative menu which have made Three Birds such a success should also see The Apiary follow suit.

• The Apiary, 33 Newington Road, Edinburgh EH6 5JD (0131-668 4999, {||Link to website)