The Scotsman Building in Edinburgh is every bit as famous and recognisable as its neighbour at the other end of the North Bridge and unlike the Balmoral, it has its own set of legendary stairs. But, although there is a perfectly decent hotel lounge bar, where we have been on occasion, the Scotsman was always been lacking a real star venue for drinking and dining. But tomorrow, 3rd July, sees the Grand Cafe open to the public and it heralds the fact that the Scotsman will want no more.
First impressions are well impressive. A sympathetic make over of the period architecture, combined with some contemporary art and relaxed, informal dining is synonymous with the name, it is both grand and Café-esque. And that's continental sophisticated Café, not where builders get a brew and a fry whilst reading a copy of the… Screwfix Catalogue. I could chronicle the original features, wax lyrical about marble pillars, chandeliers, and the huge mirror, but this is a food review, so I'll just confirm that it is indeed a really rather nice place to be! The upper mezzanine floor is inhabited with small tables and booths, specifically for working or drinking at depending on the time of day, and in the evenings the baby grand which also resides upstairs will provide some live entertainment. A license until three in the morning means that you could arrive for breakfast and not leave until the sun is rising again the next day!
Having lived through a few restaurant openings in my times, a gentle soft launch is always a good way to iron out the teething problems, let the kitchen brigade learn the menu, the bar staff learn the cocktails and the waiting staff learn the table numbers and the now intricately complicated computerised ordering system, oh the old days of pen and paper, carrying an order to the kitchen and shouting “check on”. But then without technology the Scotsman would probably still occupy the building, so there is a certain irony I suppose, but I've drifted from the point, as I so frequently do… We saw very little evidence at our soft launch event that there was still learning to be done, the staff were friendly and knew about the dishes, the service was slick and polished, and possibly psychic, but more on that later. The food was well presented, tasted great and service was at a pace consistent with a relaxed dining experience. We were invited to dine at the Grand Cafe and so you may doubt my views can be independent and honest, but I assure you they are. Whilst the invite we received in the mail meant on this occasion we weren't picking up the bill, I would have happily paid full price and left a generous tip, such was the quality of service and food even during what was supposed to be a learning stage.
And let's talk food, after all that's what we do. After a selection of bread, olives, tapenade and butter were delivered we didn't have long to wait until the starters arrived to join the party. Belly Pork rillette was a stunning crispy coated cuboid of succulent pulled pork, but it was all the other flavours on the plate that made the dish. The crunch and bite from the celery and apple and some smooth fruitiness from the rhubarb puree all worked together with the pork to create a delicious starter.
The Scallops were every bit as good as the pork. Straight away there was an interesting twist where the primary accompaniment was a Venison Salami, rather than the usual bacon or black pudding. The richer, deeper flavoured slices of meat contrast so well with the seafood. Again a neat fruity puree, apple this time, keeps all the big salty flavours in check with big dollops of sweetness. If that wasn't enough some chunky hazelnuts add a completely new texture to the palate as well. Wow, two well thought out cleverly combined dishes with great flavour combinations. Expectations for main course were at a record high!
We were not disappointed. It only took a short time for the two plates to arrive, well one was a bowl, but you know what I mean. I ordered what the menu highlighted as a signature dish, to the casual observer it was a traditional cottage pie, with piped mashed potato topping and a heavy helping of neeps on the side. The dish, which was theatrically de-lidded as it was presented, was hotter than the midday mercury, thus keeping the contents warm until the final mouthful. And boy, what contents they were, for this was the signature dish of a talented chef and so the beef mince that would be in your common-or-garden cottage pie was swapped out and succulent, melt in the mouth pieces of ox cheek took its place. But the additional of bone marrow added a smoothness to the gravy which left you wanting every last drop. If only I had a spoon I thought to myself, and then discussed with Mrs-SFR, and then as if by magic a member of staff presented me with a spoon. I checked the table for bugs, no hidden microphones or telegraphs, so clearly psychic staff… I would have loved to have some photos to show you but, such was my excitement I didn't manage to take any until the plates were scraped clean.
The chicken Caesar salad was a simple presentation of a classic, it didn't need ‘a twist’ or ‘livening up’ a succulent chicken breast topped a crispy gem lettuce salad and there was a drizzling of rich creamy dressing. The garlic croutons were stunning chunks of what had until recently been a very lovely loaf and were vying for attention along with decent sized shavings of parmigiano and anchovies. One of the best Caesar salads ever, along with one of the stand out cottage pies ever, two truly stunning main courses.
Desserts rounded off the meal nicely, with an array of different choices for the sweet tooth available. Even better if you are indecisive, or just can't make your mind, then you can choose a trio of desserts and have a small serving of three of the best,the Earl Grey creme brulee just edged out the rice pudding as pick of the bunch. The Sauternes poached peach and especially the accompanying almond crumbles were another deliciously considered combination.
And that brought our evening at the Grand Café to a close. Will we return, you bet we will, but more interesting will be, when and with which other people. Will it be with Mini-SFR for a relaxing brunch served until 5pm, could be. Would it be to enjoy a relaxed meal with visiting friends or family, perhaps. Will it be for some late night drinks after the rugby at Murrayfield with the lads, potentially. The Grand Café is a massively versatile venue, equally suited to any of those tasks. The pricing is very reasonable given the city centre location and premium products, when then most expensive rib-eye can be yours with trimmings for £28 and a burger will set you back £13 you can rest assured you won't need a remortgage to settle the bill. So you lucky, lucky Dunedians get yourself down to the Grand Café and give it a try yourselves!
There are at least fourteen newspaper titles in the review above, can you spot them all?
As we mentioned we were invited to enjoy a meal at the Grand Cafe as part of their soft launch, but the views remain very much our own.