A better class of Italian

There is a memorable moment of epiphany in Anthony Bourdain’s bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential: A Journey into the Culinary Underbelly. The author is a deranged American dilettante whose interest in cooking was kindled as a child while on an extended stay in France. For the next 25 years, all of his major culinary landmarks were Gallic: how to prepare food, how to source ingredients. In short, virtually every aspect of how to cook.

Then he was employed by Italians. It was only at this stage, he says, that he realised just how half-baked his culinary education had been, and that Italian food was the equal of French cuisine. That remains a debatable point, especially if you live on the west coast of Scotland, where there is an Italian restaurant on every street corner but where good Italian food - really good Italian food, as opposed to the overpriced, overcooked conveyor-belt meals trundled on to so many plates in Glasgow - is fiendishly hard to come by. So, when yet another unsolicited recommendation from an aspiring foodie friend mentioned Santini, just off Edinburgh’s Lothian Road, it was time to book a table for two, pronto.

Santini is situated underneath the Sheraton Grand hotel, in the heart of Edinburgh’s financial district, and it’s not difficult to see who the place is aimed at. Furnished in a stoically utilitarian manner, with an emphasis on glass, chrome and light wood, the whole place has an easy, relaxing atmosphere. Light and airy, it’s well-lit and well-spaced; not exactly the sort of venue for a romantic tete-ˆ-tete - more a sort of works canteen for super-remunerated bankers and accountants. And there were certainly plenty of those on hand. It would be no surprise if every pinstripe in the place - and that means a majority of the clientele - was fully licensed to use and abuse their no doubt hefty expense account.

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Truth to tell, you will probably want to have someone else picking up the bill if you are going to Santini. Even if you can withstand the slightly-too-aggressive sales pitch when it comes to ordering wine ("If I can make a suggestion, given what you’ve ordered, you would be better off with this bottle of wine," said the pretty waitress, as she tried to hoist me up from my bargain basement 25 model to a little number breaking the 60 mark), you won’t be left with much change from 150. For most of us footing the bill ourselves, that hoists the meal fairly and squarely into the special occasion bracket, and Santini doesn’t exactly encourage the intimacy usually expected on those sort of evenings.

Still, Santini isn’t really aimed at the once-a-month diner, but at the corporate market, and it is perfectly targeted (except, perhaps, for the two lifesize, mirrored etchings of semi-clad women, which were maybe kitsch, or maybe just Italian, or maybe just a mistake).

We started with two of the house favourites, Liese plumping for creamy pumpkin risotto while I chose a "selection of Italian delicacies". The risotto turned out to be a genuine joy: it was certainly creamy, while the small chunks of pumpkin hadn’t been overcooked. The plate of delicacies, however, turned out to be something of a disappointment, with nothing but a small range of cooked meats - comprising Parma ham and all the usual suspects. They were fine enough, but to be honest, there was nothing here that I couldn’t have picked up in any good Italian delicatessen. With so many other wonderful-sounding starters to choose from (seared foie gras, fig compote and balsamic reduction, or thin slices of raw beef with mushrooms and parmesan cheese), I was left with a palpable sense of regret after round one of the meal.

This was soon dispelled by the roast duck with cured bacon, chestnuts and honey that I ordered for my main course. With the exception of the bacon (I don’t know what the symptoms were, but it was cured to the point where rigor mortis had set in), it was a delight, a demonstration that good ingredients should be allowed to speak for themselves. The roast duck was maybe a tad underhung, but it was lean and unfatty, and perfectly cooked so that it retained a hint of pink. Combined with the chestnuts and the most subtle honey glaze, it was a certainly a winning combination.

Liese’s roast fillet of cod, served on pepperonata, basil and tomato oil, was slightly less of a roaring success, but nevertheless got a qualified thumbs-up. The cod was well-enough cooked, but the sauce was a little too insipid and not as thick as she had hoped for. The whole combination managed to stay on the right side of blandness, however, and just about passed muster.

The selection of puddings, though, was depressingly routine, and for those of us with a disgustingly sweet tooth, neither the planning nor the execution were anything to write home about. Liese had a chocolate dome with orange sauce, while I had a pear poached in Barolo wine with cinnamon, served with cream and ice cream. Both were perfectly acceptable.

The service was staggeringly good, friendly and efficient, but the most breathtaking part of the evening still remained the bill. With starters averaging more than 10, main courses north of 20 each and puddings that started at 5, even by looking at the first page of the wine list and choosing a rioja at 25, with aperitifs, coffee and service et al, our bill was almost 130. At that rate, bankers and expense account diners only need apply.

Vital statistics

Santini Restaurant

8 Conference Square, Edinburgh

0131-221 7788

Out of pocket

Three-course meal for two with a bottle of rioja, 130