There is something special about a restaurant open all day. That makes salad leaves look tired, that makes eggplant, chickpea, and cashew kofta look boring, that delivers delicate butter-crusted tartlets that are, well, absolutely nothing of the sort.
I pop in here after a guilt-ridden festive season of painfully expensive, but worthwhile Ayrshire Kelly Bronze turkey, award-winning pork sausages, beef olives, of all things, and a Belfast ham.
All from Ian Faulds of Kilmarnock, a Belfast ham maker and entertaining old-school butcher.
Now that I’m in Edinburgh seeking January redemption in what is surely Scotland’s oldest and most venerable vegetarian restaurant, I find myself pushing my plate back with a frankly underwhelming apple-cinnamon tart, thinking… ugh, that’s it. exactly the same base that was served as a starter.
Yes, it was stuffed then with Kintyre apple smoked cheese and cherry tomato. And, yes, I quite liked that first take, probably because its light, bubbly cheesiness masked the fact that the pie itself, breathlessly described on the menu, is nothing special.
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And now the meal is over and the bottom of the pie is full of mooshy apple, looks burnt around the edges, looks lazily assembled, and tastes mostly like flour.
Let’s rewind. I did enjoy that kofta when I ate it earlier, although it didn’t look too appetizing and it arrived on the table in such a quick time that I wondered how they heated it up. Its slightly spiced interior, however, was comforting, the different textures quite pleasant.
But paying £19 for two courses, or £24 for three, on the lunch menu, who wants to see the same formulated mixed salad leaves underpinning both starters? Although one of those salads came with plum dressing and banana chutney and the other with red balsamic pesto.
That’s the problem with restaurants open all day. Finding a way to hide the formula techniques that must be employed to keep the boat sailing safely through a very long day. It seems that they are struggling to do that here.
And yet…just as I’ve given up hope and absently watch the restaurant slip into afternoon torpor: staff changing shifts, voices from the kitchen filtering through the hatch listing tonight’s dishes , the only other clients poring over what sounds like a thesis on philosophy. …a baked parsnip pudding arrives with arancino rice.
Honestly? I only ordered this because it sounded so, erm, weird. Expectations are low. Especially after trying for the first time a curry of celeriac, potatoes and roasted chickpeas in a lentil wrap with toasted almonds.
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My thoughts? A) It looks a bit like tomato, sour student food and B) Those almonds aren’t toasted in the slightest.
Back to parsnip pudding? Woof! Damn heat. The combination of blue Strathdon and bramley apple, and then parsnip, sends those Heston Blumenthalesque umami flavors racing around the taste buds.
It has a delicate flavor, but as soon as I start eating I want more. Then more. There’s a battered arancino on the side that also wows when it opens to reveal creamy, moist rice, with appetizing steam rising.
Even the roasted turnip flavor in this dish is like the best baked potato. Then there is a lush sauce of sweet peas and spicy cabbage. Hurrah. This is what I was looking for. Something that is unapologetic and is much better than most meat dishes.
As for the wrapper? Well, they can certainly make a sweet potato fritter here. When I take one from the plate, its filigree melts into soft salty sensations, although you have to pay attention to the color of the fried ones.
I also like the lentil wrap which is flavorful and textured. The curry? Meh. The tomato chutney in the dish just nice and the mint raita (this is a vegan dish) just watered down for me.
Hmm, out there, the wall that kept vegan and vegetarian food from going mainstream has clearly come down, but in here? Still living in the past.
Santa Maria Street 56-58
Menu: A heady mix of tartlets, kofta, strudels and arancini from Scotland’s venerable vegetarian (and vegan) restaurant. However, the rest of the world may have caught up. 4/5
Atmosphere: The refined, airy and comfortable wood-paneled interior places it at the fancier end of the out-of-home dining market. 4/5
Service: Relaxed, pleasant, polite and efficient waiters. No complaints from me here. 5/5
Price – Lunch at £19 for two courses and £24 for three was very high priced, especially with some of the rather formulaic dishes. 2/5
Food: It’s worth going just to try the baked parsnip pudding with arancino, otherwise it’s not enough evidence of care and attention. A bit tired and disappointing. 6/10