Steak with the bakers
It is indeed possible to eat well in Scotland
“Mark you,” added Jason the cameraman, when we’d finished the shot, “There’s a lot to be said for a nice coffee-and-walnut.”
They’re a brainy lot, BBC4 crews. On a recent set for a history documentary in Edinburgh, between-takes remarks encompassed Wagner’s Tristan chord, the Nicaraguan economy and whether or not Oliver Cromwell could correctly be described as proto-democratic. But the big topic was baking. It had been a while since I’d spent any time in the back of a van with four blokes (I don’t get out as much as I used to), so it’s a trend I hadn’t observed. Maybe it’s the testosterone’n’tabloid afterglow of Paul “Trousers” Hollywood, but baking has become macho. Sourdough is a Thing, as Martin the soundman demonstrated when he passed round Instagram shots of his weekend efforts with a rye base.
“Oooh, look at that crust,” cooed the guys, as though they were inspecting someone’s newborn.
We discussed starters and sponge flour, royal versus butter icingand whether a marble pastry counter is a useful kitchen investment. Once they’d got started on whether instant or espresso powder gave a better flavour for said coffee-and-walnut, I began to feel a bit lost in the rabbit hole. Wasn’t this Edinburgh? Land of the “you buy it, we’ll fry it” cliché? Where the cholesterol clod of frozen mutton and hydrogenated vegetable fat known as a Scotch pie is considered to be improved by a few minutes’ wallow in the crisper? Yet there we were in the tea-room of Holyrood Palace sharing yellow raspberry pavlovas. By evening, though, order had been restored. The other thing about film shoots is that you spend about 12 hours a day outside waiting for planes/police/sirens/tourists to die down while the director blocks the traffic with the monitor, leaving everyone freezing, foul-tempered and in urgent need of carbohydrate.
My only experience of “fine dining” in the Scottish capital was a lugubrious evening at Martin Wishart’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Leith. The butter was nasty, the food was mostly served on those stupid dark slates and the staff were officious. Not a happy memory, but then on a budget of £16 per head for dinner there was no danger we were eating there. Or anywhere else in the centre for that matter, because the tattie shop was closed and we weren’t about to blow £4.60 of licence-payers’ money on a taxi each way to somewhere affordable. There was a restaurant in our hotel, the Jury’s Inn opposite Waverley Station, but nobody wanted to eat microwaved garlic bread in a room with a huge telly and the windows bolted shut. (Why do they do that? Or at least why lie about it? It’s not for “my safety”. I’m not going to commit suicide in your hotel, thank you. I have more self-respect. Just write: “We have bolted the windows shut to stop you having a sneaky fag out of them, and that means you, Lisa Hilton.”)
Morale was low: we were due on the 7am Flybe to Birmingham. Having agreed that we’d pay for our own food, we went to Michael’s Steak and Seafood Bar on the gaunt lower rises of the Old Town, where we had a totally perfect dinner. Michael Neave, the chef, has been cooking professionally since he was 15 and is an enthusiastic champion of the brilliant indigenous meat and shellfish that Scotland provides. The idea behind this, his second restaurant in the city, came from a visit to New York, where he spied the appeal of really well-treated classic ingredients in a simple, unprofessional environment. Not hipster faux-rustic simple — there wasn’t a slate or a man-bun in sight — but straightforward, in that Michael’s looks like a restaurant and serves things that hungry people want to eat after work. It might sound fairly basic, but it’s curiously rare. No concept, no lengthy explanations, no surprises, and equally no petty cost-cutting, no irritatingly bonhomous sharing plates, and a team in the kitchen who actually cook.
There was a choice of Scots oysters, au naturel or with a nod to the States in a tangy Bloody Mary Sauce, as well as a list of starters which included a vegetarian haggis bon bon. None of the sourdough bakers were man enough for that, but we tried crab cakes with an apple and celeriac remoulade and mussels with a cream, bacon and Laphroaig sauce. Our waiter warned us that the latter was “pretty smoky”, but the mussels were so fresh and flavourful that they stood their ground. The crab was generous, crisp with-out and cleanly-textured within and someone had really spent time on the remoulade, balancing the vinegar with the sweetness of the apple. We all went for the steaks, which were generous and cooked as we requested, with mountains of perfect chips, but we could have taken the hot seafood platter, or a beef and oyster pie (neither of which, again, one sees as often as one should). The wine list isn’t vast, but the pricing is maybe a nod to another north-of-the-border cliché, so we chose a juicy New Zealand Pinot Noir which could have been marked up half as much again without complaint in London.
I can’t emphasise how much I liked Michael’s. The staff were friendly and efficient, the lighting exceptionally kind, which is a consideration when you’re smeared with Trump-esque orange panstick, and the food, without being challenging, is exactly what you want to eat. If I lived in Edinburgh I’d go all the time.
There has traditionally been a significant Italian community in Edinburgh, and Neave’s approach recalls the best of Italian cooking — excellent ingredients treated with respect. So much of British food outside London consists of reliable but dreary chain offerings, and it was a joy to eat in a place that not only had soul but didn’t see it as a substitute for satisfaction. The bakers were pretty pleased too, and given that they’re men who can spot a hint of orange flower water in a brioche from the end of a boom, that’s a tough crowd.