Restaurants James Pembroke
CARPE DIEM The French House, Soho, London The Lookout, Calton Hill, Edinburgh
The boon restaurant companion of my youth has gone. He is now ordering Bloody Marys (with lots of Lea & Perrins) and steak tartare in the great brasserie upstairs.
In our teens, while our contemporaries were downing pints, Si and I shared a precocious love of white linen and seemingly arcane menus. When we were 18, we went on a tour of India. By mistake. We stupidly followed the path of our mates, who delighted in becoming short-term, faux hippies. We, on the other hand, were swathed in Benetton pinks and greens, lugging suitcases because we hated rucksacks, and we hated virtually every moment of India. And the week we spent in Nepal, never seeing Everest. We spent days at a time on the floor next to the loo on second-class trains, travelling from one berth of misery to another: in trains from Varanasi to Bombay to Delhi.
Our only pastime was writing lists of all the restaurants in London we intended to visit on our return: the Golden Duck, the English Garden, San Frediano … and we spent all our wages that summer visiting the lot. Yet neither of us visited an Indian restaurant for a decade. Si had no truck with foodies but he delighted in the buzz and glamour of an elegant restaurant all his days, seeking out new ones, as he did winners at the races.
Bistros were still flourishing in the Eighties. Simon never could ignore the dripping wax of the candle over those bottles, as he bounced from one selfdeprecating story to another. He would have loved Neil Borthwick’s reincarnation of the 24-seater restaurant above the French House. It’s pure French bourgeois cooking: a couple of starters and a couple
of mains – calves’ brains thankfully appear to be a mainstay. The main fish dish doused in dulse butter is just £12. Always order the aligot, the elastic fondue-like potato dish which Neil was taught during his spell in the Cevennes. And the wine is a bargain: £3.90 for a glass of red or white. Don’t leave without devouring half a dozen madeleines.
My best lunch of 2019: definitely the one I shared with James of Baillie Gifford on the sunniest of November days at the new Lookout restaurant atop Calton Hill, in Edinburgh, looking out over the Firth of Forth and the Pentland Hills. No wonder those Enlightenment pioneers wanted to recreate the Acropolis there. Sadly, their dream was as unfulfilled as Bonnie Prince Charlie’s. Only one elevation of their Parthenon (‘Scotland’s folly’) was ever erected, due to the historic malaise of value-for-money meanness. If only they had drafted in King Ludwig of Bavaria.
There are only 40 covers – so book. It’s the same team who run the Gardener’s Cottage at the bottom of the hill. You can feast on oysters or air-dried ham, or dip their breadsticks into their cheesy custard, or have a three-course lunch of, for instance, sea trout and pheasant for £30. I had pappardelle with oxtail ragu which set me up for the descent downhill.
It gets more expensive in the evening but, this summer, regardless of the price and the distance, take someone irreplaceable like my lost friend, and let the love and the wine flow.
The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 5BG; www.frenchhousesoho.com; tel: 020 3985 7603; open 12-3 (Mon-fri); 6.30-9.30pm (Tues-thurs only)
The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage, Calton Hill, Edinburgh EH7 5AA; www.thelookoutedinburgh.co.uk; tel 0131 322 1246