Restaurants in Edinburgh’s Old Town
Style and substance
Susan Smith ducks down a close in Edinburgh’s Old Town and is pleasantly surprised by what she finds
There have always been bars with ideas above their station when it comes to food, and there have always been restaurants with the notion that their bar area can be both a bit on the side and the hippest hangout in town. It’s not often that both are right. Yet, the middle ground is inching ever closer as continental attitudes regarding the affinity of drinking and eating take root.
At first sight, Monteiths isn’t sure if it’s a bar or a restaurant. Approaching it from the Royal Mile, you might think it’s a fine dining restaurant. There’s a menu board and an alleyway bedecked with arching vines and twinkling fairy lights, but few other clues.
Down the alley then down some steps you’ll find an unexpectedly chic basement space with olive green and dark purple walls. High, uncomfortable stools crowd around the bar, but as your eyes become accustomed to the dimly lit, windowless interior you realise that the larger division is given over to dining tables, beside which are gathered an eclectic mix of furniture and fittings including two traditional armchairs by a gas fire, Philippe Starck dining chairs, an enormous gilt-framed mirror and a moose-head made out of cardboard.
It’s clearly a place more geared towards the 20-something professional than tourists. That it’s run by the guys behind Sygn, one of the city’s more discerning style bars, says much about its intended clientele though perhaps makes the choice of location, behind a kiltshop a few doors up from John Knox’s House, surprising.
The menu is as sophisticated as the décor, with prices reflecting the ambition. Chef Philip Lynch comes from a stint as sous chef at the Grain Store on Victoria Street, and the influences are discernible. If you’re on a budget it’s worth trying out the lunch menu, which includes haggis spring rolls with chilli jam for £5.65, a lamb burger with hummus, raita and fries for £8.95 or mushroom Wellington for around £10.
The dinner menu kicks in at 5pm and that’s when the real treats begin; try a scallop ravioli brilliantly set off in a not too spicy chilli gazpacho or confit duck with rice paper rolls, which comes with a great bang bang sauce that’s tangy but not too hot. Mains include an impressively tender pan-seared venison accompanied by butternut squash and pine kernel barley, a hint of what modern Scottish cooking really ought to be. Otherwise, smoked haddock comes with Stornoway black pudding, a poached egg and pancetta – you know it’s not a menu for vegetarians when even the fish comes with a smattering of meat. Desserts include a satisfying banana tart tatin that’s worth waiting its 15-minute cooking time for.
Monteiths may be confused as to whether it’s a bar or restaurant, but perhaps it doesn’t need to come to a conclusion. It works, by and large. Overall, though, it’s somewhere with much to offer, particularly in this part of town, and seems well worth clearing out the back storeroom of the High Street kiltmaker to accommodate.