Forage and Chatter 9½/10
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.