Stockbridge is one of our favourite parts of Edinburgh for many reasons. It's where you will find the locals relaxing and eating out. And yes there are students, but it's nothing like Potterrow and round St Leonard's. Yes you'll also find tourists, from every nation under the sun, but again it's nothing like The Royal Mile. For folk that enjoy watching the world go by, Stockbridge is a little village, on the edge of the town, in the middle of the capital city. But don't mistake this for a quiet village, the main street is alive with bars, restaurants and coffee shops, that's another of the reasons a food writer loves it so.
The very best restaurants though are tucked slightly away, they don't need people to be passing and go "Oooh that looks nice, let's go in there" a good reputation or a local's recommendation means people will search them out. Merienda is one such place, its on the new town side of the Waters of Leith, near where you may go for the market, which puts it slightly away from the hustle and bustle of the busy Raeburn Place. A basement, a side street or just on the periphery is often the perfect place to hunt for the lesser spotted eaterie, thriving on word of mouth, nourished by loyalty and good reviews. In that regard Merienda is particularly well fed, consistently sustained in their first year by frequent good write ups and social media accounts full of loves and likes for the latest dishes. After being one of those likers for so long we finally got the opportunity to try the Merienda experience for ourselves.
Inside Merienda you realise you will be one of only a select few enjoying Lunch or Dinner. Many adjectives can be used to describe the interior, cosy or intimate, but I prefer snug, because it has that relaxed atmosphere and a laid back familiarity that combined with the diminutive dimensions of the restaurant make you feel welcome immediately. But this isn't some throwback to your nan's parlour, the interior is bang on trend with contemporary design and decor, fine dining without all the fuss.
We were greeted by chef owner Campbell Mickel who sat us down and a friendly and knowledgeable waitress talked us through the Merienda concept of small dishes. The idea is rooted in the Mediterranean snack, something we are very fond of, indeed that's the very meaning of Merienda. A large, monthly changing menu of small plates from which you can order some, enjoy, order some more. You may like one so much you order it again, or you try something different. The menu recommends 4 plates each for a light meal, fourteen between two for a full tasting experience, we were told the record was 22 plates! The menu is a who's who of Mediterranean dishes, neatly categorised into 'Farms & Pastures', 'Fields & Gardens' and 'Rivers & Seas' so expect to see Focaccia rubbing shoulders with Belly Pork, whilst Patatas Bravas nestles alongside seared Tuna. Chef Mickel's twist is to use the finest Scottish products to prepare these dishes, artisan and small producers are showcased with Perthshire Strawberries getting a nod on this month's menu, along with Tobermory Oak Smoked Trout.
After ordering you then get to enjoy a bit of culinary roulette, you are completely in the hands of the chef as to which dish is ready and when, so you can never be totally sure what you are about to be presented with.
First up for us was a simple spread of Serrano ham, which as a dish is right up there on our favourites list anyway. Merienda's offering was every bit as fresh and tasty as the finest I've enjoyed actually in the Mediterranean, the punchy fruitiness of the dried tomatoes which accompanied it, only serve to further pull out the rich and salty flavours in the pork.
We were also served up the Tuna. This finely sliced carpaccio was gently seared on the outside, adding even more depth of flavour to the rich meatiness of the fish. The Mojo Verde and the Purple Radish topped with wasabi slugged it out as the accompaniments. Both brought big flavours to the mouthful, but neither detracted from the star of the show, the beautifully fresh tuna. An excellent introduction.
The next two dishes were almost designed for this Instapinning Facetweeting age. So visually stunning you didn't really want to eat them, they looked like they should be framed and hung in a gallery somewhere. The Goat’s Cheese Mousse were silky white pearls of creamy goodness that melted in your mouth like dairy clouds. And how best to accompany dairy decadence, why a huge earthy sweetness from cubes of beetroot, of course. But why stop with two flavours and textures, how about some salt and crunch from the accompanying Walnuts. Every mouthful was different in this dish, you can play around with trying to isolate one or combining two, or tuck in to all together and let them all roll around together, this one definitely tasted as good as it looked.
Which may suggest that the trout was somehow less awesome. But no that wasn't the case at all! The photos should give you a good inkling that you aren't about to get a piece of pan Fried fish, this has been cold smoked, long and low imparting great flavour, whilst maintaining the vibrant orange colour and sucullent texture. This may not be to everyone's taste, I mean each to their own and all that, but I found it exceptional. The use of cucumber, typically not known for its robust flavour, was served up two different ways to counterpoint the smoky richness of the trout. Firstly scorched, pulling out a great deal of the moisture and just concentrating the cucumberyness, to leave only the distinct sweetness. The cucumber gel went the other way pureeing the cucumber skin to an essence, again abound with the cucumber flavour, but focussed into little emerald marbles. The spiced creme fraiche not only added to the Jackson Pollock-esque arrangement, but added some warmth and creaminess to again bring in another flavour dynamic which kept the mouth guessing which taste buds would be needed with each forkful.
The third round of plates almost provided a respite from the sensory gymnastics of the previous. A beautifully simple Focaccia, full of air with a delicious salt crust was perfectly accompanied by basil oil, if I had to be critical it would be to complain that there wasn't more of it!
And a panna cotta, usually so sedate, sometimes even bland, this couldn't be hiding any unseen flavours beneath its innocent flower topped beauty could it? Well yes it would appear it could. The unmistakable taste of a super mature Isle of Mull cheddar cheese doesn't so much sneak up on you as give you a good old slap in the chops. It's not overpowering or intense, it's just a surprise that so much flavour can be squeezed into that culinary format. Of course when you have one flavour bounding off into the sunset, you need some others to bring back some balance and if ever there was something to go with cheese it's the humble leek. Crispy leek shards bring texture and a robust earthiness to counter the cheddar, have a few on each forkful to maximise the contrast, too many and it becomes a bit of a chewfest. The leek oil likewise provided enough flavour to wrangle the mischievous creaminess of the panna cotta back into a sensible place. This I feel is one of those dishes where the chef has had some fun, taking something which should be unassuming and giving diners a bit of a surprise. By the time you read this the menu may have changed and I reckon you'll have to work out for yourself which dishes contain the surprises...
Three plates came out next, just to keep us on our toes. The Potato Bravas is another one of my Mediterranean favourites so this one needed to be good. It was. The use of delicious baby potatoes was genius. They were cut and cooked to perfection, crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle. The tomato reduction added a more intense sweet fruitiness than a regular bravas and the aioli balanced things of nicely. For a dish that is often thought of as an accompaniment this one held its ground well and made itself stand out amongst all the others as being one of my favourites of the evening.
Belly Pork is one of the most flavoursome cuts you can have, especially when it's been braised low and slow to give the melt in the mouth texture. Merienda have done a grand job with a simple chargrill and some sea salt to pull out the richness of the meat and crisp the skin to a good crunch. Paired with a delicious, slightly fiery, bbq sauce which really sets off that smooth pork flavour and a warm potato salad bound in something akin to Marie Rose sauce rather than the traditional mayo. This was one of those dishes which didn't have any tricks or surprises, just honest flavours derived from the quality of the raw ingredients, in this case the brilliance of the pork.
The final dish was another one of our most loved Mediterranean meals, the moussaka. This again was a time for Merienda to shine with easily our favourite plate of the evening. The simpleness again just allowed the quality of the ingredients and the skills of the chefs to shine through. Exquisite layering with just the optimum ratios of meat to potato. The spicing of the lamb is crucial to a good moussaka and this was done with a deft touch achieving perfect balance. The aubergine was perfectly cooked bringing its sweetness to intervene between the spiced meat and the oh so creamy potatoes stacked on top. A sensational end to the savouries.
All that remained was 'sweetness' section of the menu and if all that had gone before was anything to go by, we were in for a treat!
The Rice Pudding was served cold with a caramelised sugar crust, reminiscent of a traditional creme brulee, the perfect way to serve on a warm summers evening. The peach mousse and strawberry coulis delivered alternative fruity sweetness to cut through all that creaminess.
The burnt basque cheesecake is unlike any other cheesecake you'll have ever seen, forget pastry or biscuit, there's no waterbaths or fancy gadgets, just a hellishly hot oven. The result is not always the most aesthetically pleasing, as the name would suggest its often blackened and charred on the outside, whilst still custardy in the middle. Merienda have created an excellent version, the crispy caramelised crust is addictive with the bitterness cutting through the vanilla creaminess of the baked cheesecake. The sharp berry fruitiness also provided a different contrast with the cheesecake, as again the chef delivers a range of flavours to combine as you wish.
That brought our most enjoyable Merienda experience to an end. The restaurant is definitely worth seeking out, whether you are wanting a light Merienda or a full on dinner, the small plates give you that option. The service was slick and friendly; never too slow, or making you feel rushed, you felt perfectly relaxed as you waft through the experience. Our selections would have cost just under forty pounds per person, but for the quality ingredients and skilled presentation I would say that was good value for money. The regularly changing menu means that every visit will be different, with different combinations of dishes to try out. Merienda isn't just a restaurant, it's an experience, a journey of discovery for the senses - sight, smell and above all taste, a journey that takes you right out of Edinburgh and ironically down to where I wrote this review, a sun drenched harbour in a small fishing village lapped by the Mediterranean Sea. Merienda for a novel high end dining experience full of authentic flavours with a twist, we couldn't recommend it more highly.