West coast customs
Silicon Valley and Hollywood might dominate great swathes of our cultural landscape, but Californian food and wine seems like a quirky novelty. Donald Reid went west
The first hurdle to clear is that this is an American restaurant that doesn’t serve burgers. The best explanation of this is that it’s not an American restaurant but Californian. Calistoga has been around in Edinburgh since 2004 on St Leonards Street, and properly popular it has been too. This second branch arrived in the summer in the tucked-away venue off Rose Street that was once home to Martin’s and the original Roti.
What’s worth keeping in mind is that California is a great place for food. The climate, the soil, the Pacific, the wealth, the international influences. It’s the home of the French Laundry, a regular contender for the unawardable title of best restaurant in the world, while Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley is regarded as an inspiration around the world for the Slow Food ideals of real cooking with seasonal, local ingredients. Then there’s the wine.
If you haven’t been paying attention, Californian wine has made a bit of progress since Paul Masson and his collectable carafes. Gordon Minnis, who runs the two Calistoga restaurants in Edinburgh, is also proprietor of Sideways wine store, named in tribute to the pinot noir quaffing film and a place imbued with the unconventional, upbeat attitude of the winemakers from places such as Napa Valley, Russian River and Sonoma.
In truth, it’s wine that leads the way to the restaurant. There’s a wine lounge to one side of the main dining space, which itself is dotted with tasteful wine posters. The Europeans can get very snooty about wine and the creative, relaxed tone inspired by the West Coast viniculture is one of many things to like about this restaurant.
The food – particularly when read on the menu – seems imbued with the same sunshine. There’s colour and bold flavours, with a constant interplay of sweet and savoury that has pumpkin appearing in a starter, mixed into a mash served with a tasty main course of lamb gigot chop and providing a smoky, dry flavour to a crème brûlee. Even vanilla doesn’t just flavour ice cream but also a mash served with red mullet and a mango and ginger sauce.
Fun and lively for sure, but it’s a style that can trip itself up. Pumpkin, pepper and pine nut broth with blue cheese crostini sounds exciting but none of the component parts were discernible in a woefully bland soup. Presentational issues also arise: excessive swirling and twirling of sauces is about as topical now as house price inflation, and however much the Californians like the chilled out approach it’s not the best way to offer starters and puds. Turn the fridge up a few degrees. You wouldn’t serve the Ridge Montebello ‘98 at the wrong temperature.
70 Rose Street Lane North, Edinburgh
0131 225 1233, www.calistoga.co.uk
Two-course lunch and pre-theatre £11.50; average two-course dinner £20.
Food and wine from the Golden State lights up a gloomy corner of Edinburgh.