When you stand at a major crossroads in your life, there are generally plenty of voices wishing to dispense advice. Strangers who just want to stick their oar in, well-meaning friends who want to help, and those less kind folks who want to sit back and watch you fail – only so that they can loudly proclaim that they knew from the outset that it was all a big mistake.
"He's taken on a notorious boozer,
determined to turn it around."
In the interests of full disclosure – I’ve just watched several of my friends turn their lives upside down as they ditch one career and follow their dreams down another path. One is an old colleague who, after 30-odd years in newspapers has gone into the hospitality trade.
But this is no bucolic idyll of retiring to become Mine Host in a country pub. Rather, he took on one of Edinburgh’s most notorious boozers and determined to turn it around into a bar serving meals and a thriving concert venue.
And, since beginning his challenge at the tail end of last year, the place has been transformed. It’s not just the decor – a dark and dingy pub has become a light and airy bar – but the ambience is completely different. The warm welcome is a far cry from the old pub’s inch-thick ledger behind the bar detailing all those patrons who were barred.
During the revamp, the decision was made to sacrifice a little of the bar area so that the kitchen could be extended. It still only makes it slightly larger than a cupboard – but, wonders are being performed in there none the less.
There are two menus really – three if you include the bar snack range. There’s a full menu with sharing platters and vegan and vegetarian options and a specials menu which changes daily. That normally would ring a warning bell with me. A small kitchen is generally best served by doing a few things really well rather than trying to be all things to all people. But I was reassured to see deliveries coming in from fishmongers and butchers (as well as craft brewers) as we perused the menus. At least if this chef was going to attempt too much, he was going to do it with the best ingredients.
We shared one of the vegetarian starters, leek fritters with lemon sour cream (£4, with an optional fried egg for an additional £1) as the portion sizes we could see coming out of the kitchen looked substantial. Four large leek rostis came with a huge dollop of sour cream that had just enough lemon to provide interest, but not too much to overpower.
The fritters themselves held together well, although I felt they could have done with a touch more seasoning.
Encouraged by the deliveries of fresh fish, I plumped for the fillet of hake served on roast chorizo with wilted spinach and roast cherry vine tomatoes and mashed potato – topped off with a tempura smoked king prawn (£12). The hake itself was amazing. It’s a strong fish that can take a lot of punishment. But here the chef had surrounded it with fabulous accompaniments.
The mash was buttery and smooth but not runny. The chorizo had been grilled just enough to bring out all the oils and the slight heat and sweetness of the peppers. The spinach had cracked white pepper through it – adding just a note of interest to what can be a slightly bland vegetable (as a side note, the spinach had also been properly washed and drained, so it wasn’t gritty or swimming in liquor).
The roasted vine tomatoes could have done with a while longer in the oven. Instead of being sweet, smoky tomatoes, they were more like small balls of molten lava. The smoked tempura king prawn was, I confess, beautiful, but it seemed to be an unnecessary flourish on what was otherwise a nicely balanced dish.
Mr Turner went for a large portion of minced lamb moussaka with Greek salad (£9). He felt that the cinnamon/nutmeg seasoning was overdone, but freely acknowledged that it would be entirely dependent on which part of the Aegean you hailed from and would be the same debate that us Scots would have on whose granny made the best mince and tatties. Moreover, he did provoke a flurry of agitation in the kitchen when he asked if he could have some more olive oil for his salad.
Yes, there are slight issues with seasoning – but that could be down to taste – and I still feel that the chef is trying to do too much all at once. But it’s a fresh and adventurous menu that shows promise. Given the evidence of this outing, I’m quite certain that Leith Depot will soon gain a whole new reputation that has nothing to do with its previous incarnation.
ALSO ON THE MENU
The bar snack menu is extremely tempting. From beer battered pickles with bourbon Bloody Mary ketchup (£3.50) to chilli and smoked paprika whitebait with smoked garlic lemon aioli (£4), we could have settled down quite easily to a table full of tapas-style dishes, rather than ordering from the main menus.
Sadly, I failed to leave room for the bread and butter pudding (£4), and even Mr Turner said he didn’t have space for what looked like an amazing cheeseboard with a selection including Blue Murder, Black Crowdie and Mull of Kintyre cheddar (£7).
Main courses £7.50-£9.50
Puddings £4 (cheeseboard £7.50)
Bar snacks £2.50-£4
• Leith Depot, 138-140 Leith Walk, Edinburgh EH6 5DT, 0131-555 4738