Restaurant review: Bistro Moderne, Edinburgh

Bistro Moderne, in Edinburgh's Stockbridge. Picture: Jane Barlow
Bistro Moderne, in Edinburgh's Stockbridge. Picture: Jane Barlow
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EVEN if Usain Bolt does turn up for next year’s Commonwealth Games, the quickest sprinter the world has ever seen would struggle to be faster off the mark than Edinburgh chef Mark Greenaway.

Bistro Moderne

15 North West Circus Place, Edinburgh

Starters £5–£9, Main courses £12–£18, Puddings £7 (cheeseboard: 3 cheeses, £7; 5 cheeses, £9)

Rating 7/10

Within hours of the news breaking that Café Fish were the latest casualty of the Stockbridge site that also saw off Victor and Carina Contini’s stylish Italian eatery Zanzero, the ambitious young chef was in there.

The rapidity of the announcement that he had taken up a lease on the former bank building may have come as something of a surprise, especially considering the site’s troubled past. However, that Greenaway is already spreading his wings less than a year after he opened his first solo venture, Restaurant Mark Greenaway, up the hill in another former bank building on North Castle Street, is less of a shock.

Indeed, in forging a career as a chef who is as happy on BBC2’s competitive cooking show Great British Menu as he is in his Edinburgh kitchen, Greenaway has shown a chutzpah and chirpy self-confidence that is standing him in good stead in an increasingly competitive Edinburgh dining scene. That willingness to back himself was evident in his year-long search for somewhere suitable to launch Bistro Moderne, and the fact that the site’s provenance was no deterrent when Café Fish’s loss left the way open. Like Tom Kitchin in Leith and Dominic Jack on Castle Terrace, Greenaway no doubt reasoned that the presumably much-reduced rent provides a much-increased chance of success.

At first sight little has changed about the former bank building. There are still the same wood-panelled walls, still the same cavernous high ceilings, and still the same indefinable cold edge to the place, even if the decent crowd which had turned out to see in Bistro Moderne’s first Sunday night service had knocked the sharpness from the usual froideur. The changes were in the most important area: a bulging cocktail list and the food. Greenaway’s unashamedly Gallic menu was definitely a world away from that of his predecessors’, and far more akin to two relative Stockbridge newcomers, Tom Kitchin’s hugely popular gastropub The Scran & Scallie, and Paul Gunning’s quietly impressive basement restaurant Purslane, which is literally a stone’s throw from Bistro Moderne.

The menu comes wrapped in a piece of card on which Greenaway writes that “a bistro is a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting”, but the patron is surely having a laugh: while you could just about argue that the prices are moderate, the setting isn’t particularly modest and the food certainly isn’t simple. Indeed, Greenaway’s trademark desire to play with tastes and cram as many into a dish as possible was in evidence all over the menu, whether it was in the starter of ham hough ballotine (served with quails’ eggs, smoked pineapple and pea shoots) or a main course of caramelised duck breast (served with watermelon, celeriac, sausage roll, braised salsify and cooking liquor).

In deference to this tendency, Bea started with the Aberdeen Angus carpaccio, which came with white onion ice cream, a salad of cornichons, crispy shallots and soused mushrooms. It was, in truth, a starter that only half-worked. The beef was beautifully soft, almost molten, but its subtle flavours were completely overwhelmed by the coldness of an ice-cream which was more like ice. It certainly made an impact, but whether or not the whole ensemble showcased its key ingredient is questionable.

I had no such misgivings about my starter, three big gobbets of soft shell crab in a tempura batter which were accompanied by a gorgeously light and silky tartar sauce. This was the sort of dish which made Greenaway’s name, with a wonderful juxtaposition of textures and temperatures making for a slick serving. It seems almost churlish to mention that the menu should make some reference to the tempura element, which was completely absent.

If I loved my starter, our main courses were more problematic, with Bea leaving me in no doubt about how disappointing she found her red wine poached cod. This came with crispy squid, soft polenta, wild mushrooms and sauce nero but was undeniably, infuriatingly bland, with only the mushrooms making any impact on the palate.

There was certainly no issue about flavour when it came to the dark meat of my braised pork neck with sweet potato, pickled plum, baby leeks, tarragon granola and puffed crackling. Oozing with taste and character, this was a lovely slab of meat with well-judged accompanying flavours, all perched atop the pork. This time I was left mildly irked by the absence of vegetables or carbohydrates alongside a cut of meat which is a relatively cheap cut with a price tag of £14. At least I was forewarned and ordered “a bag of garlic roast potatoes” costing £3.50, which turned out to be five undercooked new potatoes in rosemary. Seriously guys, a roast spud should look like a roast spud.

By now I was beginning to wonder whether I’d just arrived in a bad mood and was finding fault for the sake of it. And then pudding landed and suddenly all was right with the world. Greenaway prides himself on his desserts and he’s right to because they’re invariably faultless. In Bea’s case I had to let her be judge and jury because she wasn’t letting me anywhere near her snowball with cherry, white chocolate and granita, although the rapidity with which it disappeared told its own story.

My bread and butter pudding, however, was simply superb. It didn’t look much like any bread and butter pudding I’ve ever had before, but I was far too busy wolfing down a sumptuous fruit-filled base given a kick by the inclusion of quince, to care, and that was before I’d savoured the slick, cloying, magnificently creamy home-made toffee and vanilla ice cream. If anything can make a man forget about being thwarted in his quest for roast potatoes, it’s a pudding this good.

So, what to make of it all? It was perhaps unfair to turn up in his first week when such a short turnaround made teething troubles inevitable, but Greenaway is a survivor and my bet is that he’ll stay the course here. However, it won’t be without some adjustments nor with the ease with which he slotted seamlessly into North Castle Street.

• Bistro Moderne, 15 North West Circus Place, Edinburgh EH3 6SX (0131 225 4431;