Quay Commons 9/10
EDINBURGH’S successful Gardener’s Cottage has run out of space, so the proprietors have opened a new enterprise in Leith. Quay Commons is billed as “an industrious space to bake our famous sourdough bread en masse; a place to butcher and cure meat; a place to experiment and test new dishes and ingredients; a place to cultivate quality and integrity”. It’s on Commercial Street in part of a modernised bonded warehouse. The historic industrial vibe chimes with its focus on time-honoured methods of preserving and transforming raw ingredients, of drilling down to the basics of food production and cooking and getting involved with them, an interest that characterises many of the most exciting new restaurants around.
At heart though, Quay Commons isn’t a restaurant. Thus far, the bakery that underpins the venture is turning out home-baked breads, pastries and cakes that mark it out from the wave of cafés which are popping up with alacrity. Good bakeries nurture their customers; it’s the catering equivalent of the home hearth. The smell of bread hanging in the air along with the dusty presence of baked flour – who doesn’t love that? But I have one issue with them: they’re carb-centric; you end up eating too much stodge, however toothsome. Certainly, the breads at Quay Commons are an enormous pull. With its springy crumb and chewy black crust, the sourdough, sine qua non of any serious, contemporary baking operation, is ace, and of course its well-tended natural leaven and slow fermentation do wonders for the digestibility of the wheat. Its yeasted breads are accomplished too – craggy baguettes, airy rolls that hybridise the appeal of a brioche and a bap.
It’s all sound stuff, but what I love about Quay Commons is how these pleasures in their own right are a platform for a simple, fresh, savoury offer that’s predicated on enticingly prepared seasonal vegetables, with the circumspect adjunct of well-selected fish and meats. For instance, the mutton pie, a paragon of melting flaky pastry and impeccably seasoned meat, occupies a third of the plate; straightforward, seasonally appropriate salads grace the other two-thirds. Juicy tomatoes of the less standard variety (every tomato we eat here is special, red/green/yellow, with irregular dimensions, juicy, refreshingly acidic), new potatoes, thinly sliced radish, allotment-style leaves that include little chards, peppery bronze cress, all tangled in tender herb pickings, fennel, coriander, mint, parsley. The filling of the dainty roasted tomato and courgette tart manages to be nicely oozy without softening the brilliantly short pastry that encases it. With it come further vegetable delights: roasted beetroot, a lukewarm potato gratin, oily courgettes that have been roasted under a crumble of herbs.
The term “filled roll” takes on a new meaning at Quay Commons. One of ours is filled with a flaked Arbroath smokie, ultra-fine pink radishes, green onion and mild chilli, lightly bound in a creamy dressing, probably yoghurt-based; a little pickled apple adds kick. The prevailing palate here lets ingredients speak for themselves. If you, like me, revel in more consciously constructed, high-tone flavours, then it might seem a bit on the plain side. The wittiest and cleverest dish is the mashed broad beans on sourdough toast, a locally – and seasonally-aware – riposte to the slavishly fashionable avocado variant. It’s a big slice and so top-loaded with the vegetables garnishes that it would make a meal for one, but it only costs £4.
Cakes, as opposed to breads, keep up the standard, but unevenly. I’d like more tangible gooseberry and more of a hit of elderflower cordial in the titular sponge cake, and the chocolate bramble cake is too clumsily solid for me, but the more experimental cakes are inspired. Faultlessly baked choux buns, topped with a beetroot powder and Demerara crackling, are novel, yet they work so well. Another impeccable shortcrust tartlet presents slices of sharp white-green strawberry drizzled with a red strawberry sauce on a lovely custard; there’s a hauntingly herbal taste to this one, possibly lovage.
We draw the line before the intriguing raspberry marshmallow. Let’s keep that one for next time. New on the block, Quay Commons is still evolving, and I do like its direction of travel.