Friday, 14 September 2012

Review: Bells Diner

The first time I remember going to a specialist burger restaurant was in 2005. Back then I was discovering the joys of London, where I'd moved to go to uni, and I'd not yet been introduced to the burger "chains" of GBK and Wannaburger. It was a novelty. I had a Halloumi and Avocado burger, which I remember being pretty good- a lot better than the meaty options that my friends had. It's strange how it's stuck in my mind as an occasion, because I can't honestly say I'm a burger connoiseur, and it's not the type of thing I'd specifically go out looking for.

The exception is where Bells Diner is concerned. It was founded in 1972, on the corner of St Stephen Street in Stockbridge, and has been an institution ever since. I have to be honest, it's a slightly odd place now. The wooden tables and dark red walls made me wonder whether the only thing that had changed over the years was the prices - but if you're booked up days in advance and clearly on to a winner, why change?
The menu in Bells is simple. Really simple. You basically pick the size of your burger (4, 6 or 8oz), pick the flavoured butter you want (or cheese, or cheese and bacon), and pick your sides. If you're feeling controversial you can go with a chicken fillet, or if you're a veggie, a nut burger or omlette. If you're on a 'diet', you can get the burger without a bun (but it still comes with chips), or a steak. And that's it. That is the menu.
I went for a 6oz burger with Roquefort butter, and a side of crispy onion.
The pickle tray is a thing of wonder and by far the best thing about Bells. This is the smaller one, believe it or not. We're talking sweetcorn relish, onion jam, chilli ham, tomato chutney, ketchup, brown sauce, bbq sauce, mayo, and salad dressing.
They do a variation on about 4 puddings. Here we have a banoffee pancake, with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. The toffee sauce was, admittedly, one of the best elements of my meal. They also do sundaes (fairly standard), but I was warned off the cherry one by the waitress - apparently tinned cherries do not a good desert make. Honest, but a bit surprising to have something on the menu that you're advised not to order.

And that's Bells. It's not a place that's particularly easy to review. They do burgers, they do them well. The burgers are pretty good, particularly compared to some of the crap you get in chain restaurants. The atmosphere is cosy and friendly. The service is friendly and efficient. The deserts are average and I couldn't help feeling that, considering the chips were of the cheap frozen reconstituted potato kind, the whole thing was slightly overpriced. The last time I went, we took friends who lamented that it was "no Cambridge Bar" - if you want impressive toppings, Bells is not for you. But if you want a nostalgic reminder of Edinburgh in the 1970s, or a world where the burger was more about the meat than the other stuff in the bun, then it's worth a bash.

Meal for two, with a beer each and a pudding to share: £32

Bells Diner
7 St Stephen Street
0131 225 8116

Monday, 10 September 2012

Recipe: Pan-fried Gnocci with Spinach, Cherry Tomatoes & Pine Nuts

This is easily one of my favourite week night meals - it's a Mr F concoction that has become a bit of a comfort food staple. It combines several of my favourite foods (spinach, butter and potatoes), and the act of frying carbohydrates means it is probably bad for you. I tell myself that the cherry tomatoes and spinach count as two of your five a day, so that makes it ok.
Serves 2

500g gnocci (roughly one packet, unless you can be bothered making your own)
1 clove garlic, finely diced
1 generous pinch mixed dried Italian herbs
50g butter
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 large handfuls (about 75g) baby leaf spinach
2 handfuls (about 12) cherry or baby plum tomatoes, halved

Pre-heat your oven on low (to use to keep things warm).
Cook the gnocci according to the packet instructions. Meanwhile, in a frying pan, melt half of the butter and add in the pine nuts and garlic. Toast in the butter until golden, taking care not to burn them. Add in the cooked and drained gnocci, adding more butter if necessary to prevent it sticking to the pan, and stir gently. The gnocci should fry slowly for a minute or so on each side, until golden and crispy. Transfer the gnocci and nuts into an ovenproof dish, and keep warm in the oven. Make sure you pour over any butter that's been left behind to keep the flavour!
In the same pan, pop the other half of the butter in. Stir in the spinach, sprinkle on the mixed dried herbs, and wilt away the liquid. This may take a minute or so. When the spinach liquid has evaporated, mix in the cherry tomatoes, stirring only occasionally, to soften the flesh and char the skin slightly.
Remove the gnocci from the oven, stir through the spinach, tomatoes and pine nuts, and serve on hot plates. Season with pepper, or, if you fancy, a little parmesan.