Monday, 19 August 2013

Review: The Gardener's Cottage

There is something incredibly romantic about the story of The Gardener's Cottage. The B-listed single story house was designed by William Playfair, and came into being in 1836 as the residence of the man responsible for the upkeep of Royal Terrace Gardens. It is a beautiful double fronted single story structure - neoclassical in design, but understated compared to most of Playfair's Edinburgh and hidden away from the road by a high hedge. Perhaps that's why it lay empty for a number of years, neglected and unloved, until it caught the eye of two chefs, looking for a unique venue for their first restaurant.

Unique is definitely the right word.

I have been desperate for an excuse to try The Gardener's Cottage ever since we moved into the area a couple of months ago. Walking past it every day, hearing the buzz that's been building, looking at the menu on the way past - it was firmly on the list.  We'd attempted a few times to book a table but left it too late, so getting a 2 at 7.30 on a Friday in the festival for Mr F's birthday was nothing short of a miracle.
The menu changes daily - any dietary requirements are asked for on booking. A lady to our left was veggie and that wasn't a problem at all - she had a variation on the set menu which looked every bit as interesting as the meaty version. 
Communal tables, set simply. 
A sharing appetiser of pickled mackerel, broad bean pate and nasturtiums with homemade sourdough. The pate was really unusual - fresh, minted and lovely with the mackerel. 
Confit duck leg with fresh beans. The duck was incredible, delicately flavoured with fresh herbs and melt-in-the-mouth soft without being greasy. The beans were crunchy and set the duck off perfectly.
Tomato, red pepper and courgette soup with mint yoghurt. The photo doesn't do the colour justice. It was velvety soft and the perfect temperature to bring out the freshness without having to wait for it to cool to eat it (not too hot, but warmer than room temperature - lovely)
BBQ duck with chanterelles, roasters, jelly and hazelnuts. The duck breast was still pink but not too rare for me, and the small portion of soft game meat that came with it was worked really well with chargrilled broccoli to stop it being too rich. The roasters were phenomenal - more of a confit potato than a Sunday effort. I could have happily eaten a dozen. 
Gooseberry jelly, yoghurt granita, Hyssop ice-cream. The gooseberry jelly was lovely and sharp, and the small bits of mueringue that were scattered over the top added a crunch. I wasn't convinced about the hyssop though, I thought that it slightly overwhelmed everything else. 
Caerphilly cheese with oatmeal crackers and pickled cucumber. The strong cheese was lovely but the crackers were the highlight, strangely enough. 
Brioche, with sweet cicily ice-cream, chocolate cream, and berry compote. The chocolate cream was incredibly rich, so the berries stopped it being too much. Lovely. 
Candles and soft lighting at the end of the evening. 

The food was lovely - really unusual, and it was great to be served things that we knew were fresh, in season, and sustainable. 
The service could have done with a bit of an improvement (our waitress tended to plonk the food down and announce what it was without waiting for us to finish our sentences) and the prices of the after dinner tea and coffee (£2.20 and £3.30 respectively) stung, particularly when we had approximately 5 minutes in which to drink them before our waitress told us that it was 10pm and our seats had been booked. It's a shame that she didn't mention that when we sat down. Luckily for us, the other guests didn't show, so we took our time. If you go, it's worth checking how long you've got.
The highlight though? The company. This isn't a restaurant to go to if you're shy and retiring, or if you want to have a quiet catch up with a friend. For us, the highlight was getting to know the couples on the end of the table next to us. The first couple introduced themselves when we joined them. They were about 3 courses (and 3 glasses of matched wine) into their dinner and chatted away about being up from Kent on holiday for the festival, about shows they'd seen, and about the city. He was the chatty one, she was quieter. The highlight of the conversation included the marvellous line "Yes, we've ben coming to the Festival for about 5 years. We are married, but just not to each other." Cue slightly awkward stuttering about anything going during the festival, and an incredibly well timed duck dish (I take it back about the hit and miss service). After they ran off to watch a show, they were replaced by a second couple, Londoners who were up to watch their son. Their easygoing chat while we were finishing our coffee was lovely. It was this chatter that made the dinner so unusual and enjoyable. It was something that both of our table-sharing neighbours commented on as making it unlike any other restaurant they've been to, and certainly a very "Edinburgh" experience.  

Unusual food in a unique setting - I'm looking forward to finding another reason to go back.

Set menu: £30 per person.
Matched wines: £35 per person.
Wines by the bottle from around £14.

Royal Terrace Gardens
London Road

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Review: The Lobster Shack, North Berwick

I live right in the heart of Edinburgh, which is a beautiful city, but during August it can be overwhelming. The tourist season is in full swing and the hustle and bustle of the festival is constant. I am certainly not one of those locals who does everything they can to escape the city. I enjoy being reminded how lovely Edinburgh is, it stops me becoming complacent - but it is nice to get away and have some peace and quiet for a few hours.

North Berwick is a small but affluent seaside town about 40 minutes drive from Edinburgh. It's also home to The Lobster Shack. The Shack is a really simple concept: a shed nestles in the harbour walls, and sells a range of freshly cooked seafood. There's half a dozen wooden tables and chairs off to the side, and plenty of benches around the harbour walls. You place your order and wait for your number to be yelled, which took about 10 minutes. Compared to your average fish and chip shop it's not cheap, but there is something rather special about it. Let's face it, not many places serve lobster (even fewer places kill them to order) and at less than half of the cost of an Edinburgh restaurant you can't really go wrong for a special treat. For me though, the thing that makes it special, the main reason I loved it, was the sheer joy of eating my first lobster using my fingers and a plastic fork while rainclouds threatened us overhead.
The Lobster Shack
North Berwick Harbour, East Lothian
Lobster and Chips with soft drinks, for two: £26.30

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Recipe: Rice Noodle Salad

I first had this kind of salad when Mr F's mum made it as a side dish for a help-yourself family lunch. I've since adapted the recipe, from a Good Housekeeping magazine, to make it a bit more interesting and it's become a favourite.

We like it in a lunch box, just as it is, or as a super quick, easy and healthy dinner with a bit of hot smoked salmon or mackerel flaked in. The edamame beans (also known as soya or soybeans) are optional, but are a great way of adding protein and keeping it veggie. Most supermarkets keep them near the frozen peas.
Because it can be prepared in advance, kept in the fridge for a couple of hours and is great at room temperature, it's perfect for taking along to a BBQ or for serving with Hoisin duck at a dinner party. 
Vermicelli rice noodle salad
Serves 2 generously.

300g cooked vermicelli rice noodles (fresh ones from the supermarket are ideal)
125g - about 4 inches - cucumber
125g - or 1 - red pepper
125g edamame 
1 red chilli, deseeded, finely chopped
2tbsp rice wine vinegar
3tbsp soy sauce
pinch sugar
1tbsp lime juice
1tbsp sesame oil
Small handful fresh coriander, finely chopped

Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions, and allow to cool slightly.
Deeseed the cucumber and pepper, and chop into pieces about 1cm square.
Stir together the rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, lime juice and sesame oil. 
In a large bowl, and using a large spoon, tongs or chopsticks to avoid slicing the noodles too much, mix together the vermicelli noodles with the vegetables, chilli, coriander and dressing.