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Usquabae Whisky Bar & Larder, Edinburgh, restaurant review

Usquabae Whisky Bar & Larder's impressive array of 400 or so whiskies is not matched by its food offering, finds Gaby Soutar

Published: July 18, 2015

It’s odd that Scottish-themed tourist traps seem to love the colour brown. I suppose it IS the national shade of haggis, whisky, stained parchment, Arthur’s Seat, history, reeking lums, authenticity, bracken, Edinburgh Castle, Mel Gibson’s hair, Hagrid’s beard, Tunnocks everything, golden eagles’ nests, wet pavements, mince, wattle and daub…
The only problem is, brown doesn’t particularly pique my appetite. Unfortunately, this place, which is named after the Gaelic for “water of life” (aka whisky), is nuts for the hue. Their logo is a russet brown and the interior ranges from Highland Cow terracotta to earth.
In the former basement premises of The Cellar Bar, on the corner that turns into Charlotte Square, its focus isn’t so much on food as on Scotch and world whisky, with 400 varieties on offer. We took a seat in one of the seven tartan-curtained alcoves. There was a table of Texans just outside, sampling amber nectar with the help of a very patient and knowledgeable barman. However, we were here for food – “a showcase of Scotland’s larder”, according to the blackboard. So you might expect some specifics when it came to provenance. Not on this menu. Keeping it vague, like it’s 1989.
The pair of sloshy crab and salmon fishcakes (£6.50) could have been hewn from any old piscine species, from anywhere, as the overriding flavour was vinegar. The two patties came with a lumpy pulp of peas and a retro side salad of cucumber arches, raw red onion, halved cherry tomatoes and leaves.
In the half light of our alcove, my starter of pheasant paté (£7) was the shape and size of an otter’s lobotomised brain – a pink half sphere. With the texture of caulk, it tasted salty, and came with two rough oatcakes and pats of butter, still encased in their luxurious golden foil, complete with the legendary words BUTTER engraved on their surface. I felt utterly spoilt.

"The two patties came with a lumpy pulp of peas and a retro side salad"

My main wasn’t bad, though the massive and blubbery skinned fillet of pan-seared sea bass (£10) had been rather over seasoned. It came with a warm potato salad, with quartered new tatties in a chive-riddled lemony mayo. I’d chosen it for the pickled vegetable ingredient, and, indeed, there was some grated carrot and radish discs on top, but I didn’t taste any vinegar (maybe they’d used it all up when making the fishcakes). I guess we’ll never find out why cold cherry tomatoes had been used to garnish this dish.
Our pan-seared fillet steak was a giant fail, yours for £24. The flavour was there but ridiculously chewy. Each mouthful was like a two-hour Zumba session for the mandibles. My other half ended up wrapping it in his napkin and hiding it in his manbag, where it oozed, sadly.
This option came with a stack of slimy and sweet “lang tatties”. I’m sure there must be a Burns poem, Address to the Lang Tattie, which starts “Oh slippery timorous potato chip, you taste quite minging yet stick oan the hip,” or something. “The best element of this dish is the sugar snap peas,” endorsed my dining partner.
We hadn’t seen any puddings on the menu, so we tried to guess what they would be – sticky toffee pudding, cranachan, chocolate fudge cake? Correct on the first two counts. However, the waiter did sell me onto the Usquabae twist on cranachan (£6), when he mentioned crazy flourishes like raspberry paint. “You can eat the flowers, so I expect a clean plate,” he said, when this dish landed, with pretty pansies concealing its full shame. There were two chocolate biscuits, each topped with a wet dollop of oaty mulch that tasted as if it was on the turn. Someone had been experimenting with spherification, so there were also little dollops of something tasteless and orange. Boak, as Burns might have said.
A decent slice of chalkily textured chocolate torte (£5) was okay, but too little too late, and I’m not sure why it came with a jug of what appeared to be marmalade, but which didn’t particularly taste of oranges (or anything).
Even though it’s the colour of a teacake, I never particularly liked the colour brown – and I’m even less of a fan now.


Dinner for two, excluding drinks £58.50


Gaby Soutar is a lifestyle editor at The Scotsman. She has been reviewing restaurants for The Scotsman Magazine since 2007 and edits the weekly food pages.

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