For­age and Chat­ter 9½/10

Sunday Herald Life - - Review - Joanna Blyth­man

YEARS back I re­viewed a restau­rant at num­ber 1a Alva Street in Ed­in­burgh. It was try­ing its best, but I felt that it was fight­ing an im­pos­si­ble bat­tle with its base­ment premises — cold, gloomy, ser­pen­tine — and its dis­creet, sub-street level en­trance. About a year ago when For­age and Chat­ter set up in this spot I didn’t pay a whole lot of at­ten­tion. Sadly, an­other lamb to the slaugh­ter, I thought, quite wrongly. The first For­age and Chat­ter blog made ref­er­ence to its “some­what hid­den space” be­fore quickly mov­ing on to de­scribe its thor­ough re­fur­bish­ment: “We’ve filled the restau­rant with dif­fer­ent types of plants sur­rounded by open brick work and dim light­ing to en­hance the theme of for­ag­ing, fo­liage and hid­den trea­sures...” and so on. Give them credit for try­ing, I con­cluded, but it won’t last. And then I kept com­ing across the menu, which reads rather well, and find­ing my­self in the area the other day, I de­cided to give it a go.

So For­age and Chat­ter has taught me to re-check my hasty as­sump­tions.

We wan­der in cock­ily on a week­day lunchtime with­out mak­ing a book­ing to find the place full. A 15-minute wait for a ta­ble, no less. The place is trans­formed. Past a beau­ti­ful cop­per-topped bar we thread our way through rooms that lead in­trigu­ingly to more rooms, all warmed by their cop­per and syl­van green tones and toasty tem­per­a­ture. There are even some din­ers out­side, for heav­ens sake. You have to take your hat off to any en­ter­prise that can lure peo­ple out­side to a sunken New Town ter­race in win­ter.

For­age and Chat­ter is heart­en­ing ev­i­dence of how Scot­land has dumped all that old-school Taste of Tar­tan bag­gage with its pa­thet­i­cally in­se­cure “We’ve got the best larder in the world” brag­ging, and re­placed it with a more ma­ture, con­fi­dent mod­ern re-em­pha­sis. In For­age and Chat­ter’s words, it serves “lo­cally sourced Scot­tish cui­sine”. Up comes the com­pli­men­tary For­age and Chat­ter fried bread — a hot roll that re­minds me of fried pizza dough — along with a downy­white quenelle of cul­tured yo­gurt but­ter dusted with wild mush­room pow­der, and a cheese and nut-free “pesto” that owes its body and bright colour to dill and pars­ley. I’m rapidly see­ing the er­ror of my ways. Why didn’t I get here sooner?

A starter of win­ter veg­etable salad, house-made ri­cotta, and herb oil looks strik­ingly clean­cut and bright, if wor­ry­ingly slight, but I steadily ad­mire it more with each mouth­ful of its furry yet firm Jerusalem ar­ti­choke, sweetly pick­led curls of finely shaved beet­root, soft leeks, smooth young cheese, punchy cel­ery leaves, and green glint­ing oil. The next starter – “onion tart, black gar­lic, goat’s curd” — is cut from the same cloth. It looks stun­ning, if sparse, but with ev­ery mol­e­cule of its thin, crisp puff pas­try base, its taupe-coloured onion mush, the vel­veteen whirls of the curd, its shal­lots fried crisply in rings and cooked crunchy to make del­i­cate lit­tle cups, its pa­per-thin slices of pearly, fresh gar­lic, my re­spect grows. The whole thing is a rhap­sody on the al­lium genus, show­cas­ing its full gamut of tex­tures and tastes.

There’s noth­ing mean about the aged beef sir­loin main course: three large, half-inch thick slices of pink juicy meat, only pass­ingly seared on the sur­face, that eat like a dream. Un­con­ven­tion­ally, it doesn’t come with some form of po­tato, just a good gravy, cubes of fried ox tongue and mush­room, lar­dons of ba­con, creamed Savoy cab­bage, and browned shal­lots. Cod, from the good-value lunch menu, is just as as­sured with its am­ber-gold, but­tery crust, a lit­tle stew of the green flags of leek, hard-fried yel­low-fleshed pota­toes, and a punchy ca­per sauce that’s half way to be­ing a salsa verde.

Dainty desserts un­der­line the kitchen’s un­stint­ing care and ef­fort. There’s as­trin­gent sea buck­thorn given a pos­set­like treat­ment matched by bold cin­na­mon-scented car­rot cake and a lit­tle minaret of semi-soft white choco­late, or the mel­low milk choco­late mouse with its ex­em­plary pear sor­bet and purée. As I said, For­age and Chat­ter has taught me a les­son.

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