West Room Reviewed by Joanna Blythman 9/10
There’s a gentle reproach to Scotland on the menu at West Room, a proper Italian outfit serving up Venetian cicchetti – little portions of food – to the post-office crowd in Edinburgh’s west end. “In Italy we eat when we drink. Buon appetito.” They’re speaking my language here. I’m not a pub person. I don’t enjoy drinking alcohol without food. And no, a bag of crisps or a greasy handful of peanuts doesn’t count as food.
Italians, of course, have got civilised drinking down to a fine art. If you order a drink in Italy, at the very least you’re going to get olives, bits of pizza, focaccia, dips.
Sometimes the snacks that accompany an “aperitivo” amount to a meal, as in Venice. Down the sinuous backstreets and alleys of La Serenissima, you’ll find those little bars, bacari, whose cicchetti pre-date the fashion for small plates and tapas.
They don’t look like much when they’re closed: a narrow front, bottles obscuring the window, a couple of rickety tables outside if you’re lucky. Then they spring to life in the early evening when they’re thronged with locals, and the bar tops fill up with plates of Adriatic seafood from the Rialto market, cured meats, local cheeses, salt cod, and much more.
It’s this spirit that West Room tries to capture. Drably Venetian decor wouldn’t work here.
Instead there are supersized lampshades, one of those geometric tiled floors that makes you feel dizzy if you look at it for too long, and panelled walls enclosing a grid of gold leaf squares, the look you get in historic Italian caffès that have been recently refurbished.
West Room misses a trick: the wine list isn’t Italian enough, with only one Venetian red. But the food?
It starts and ends well. Fritto misto, the acid test of clean deep-frying, competence with batter and truly fresh fish, passes with flying colours: pearly squid, stiff, crisp whitebait, surprisingly good prawns (not too big, quite flavoursome), a mellow aioli.
Focaccia is a touch amateurish, in a good way, less airy than some but with an addictive, salt-dusted, well-oiled crust. Risotto of East Neuk crab with chilli and tomato is fighting an internal battle with itself.
The rice is cooked to a correctly firm consistency; it forms the requisite gentle slump and you can see ample strands of white crab meat within it.
But the acidic whack of the tomato and the heat of the chilli beats its gentle charms into submission.
Three fat pea, mozzarella and basil arancini are a steal for £4.50, interesting too with fresh green peas at their heart and a pesto that tastes homemade.
Broad bean bruschetta, meanwhile, is the antithesis of the usual lazy effort: painstakingly double-podded beans piled high on toasted focaccia spread with whipped ricotta, and heaps of oily fresh mint to dress it.
Homemade ravioli of the day constitute another bargain for £6. Their ricotta filling is simple, even timid, the perfect foil, in fact, for a vibrant, handmade parsley pesto.
They come with a clutter of toasted hazelnuts, crisped-up cavolo nero, cylinders of salt-baked golden carrots that are still in their skin, and ribbons of sweet pink pickled carrot.
The totality, although most definitely not an Italian line-up, makes a jolly
West Room is the opposite of a cynical establishment. It talks up, not down, to its customers
interesting veggie option that speaks of kitchen effort.
Prices of artisan cheese being what they are, I am amazed by our £6.50 plate of Pecorino al Vino, a mouth-filling cheese from the Veneto that matures in red wine for at least three months. Here are three thick chunks, four crostini toasts made from the in-house focaccia, a tablespoonful of fragrant acacia honeycomb. I couldn’t buy these ingredients in a shop for this price.
We quickly polish off the tiramisù, that often tedious dessert, which is rather compelling here. Nearly liquified, thin sponge floats on powerful espresso, under a thin creamy froth punctuated by fatty curds of mascarpone cheese. It’s barely sweet, a commendably grown-up pudding. West Room is the opposite of a cynical establishment. Hard-working, top-drawer sourcing, it talks up, not down, to its customers. Italian, in the very best way.
Joanna Blythman is the Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2018