I’m always a bit nervous about reviewing any of the Contini family’s operations.
I edit Carina’s monthly recipe in The Scotsman Magazine. If I had to criticise any of their restaurants, which include Cannonball Restaurant & Bar and Contini George Street, she could so easily take sweet revenge.
If she lumped in spellos and non sequiturs, missed a deadline and a few oven temperatures and chucked in random ingredients, put tsps instead of tbsps, it could make life very tricky for me.
Anyway, I’m taking my chances and dropping by, as this decade-old place has had a recent refurbishment, as part of the £22 million redevelopment of the National Galleries of Scotland, due to be completed in 2021.
While the works continue, you access the restaurant through a sliding window entrance rather than the atrium, which makes you feel a bit like an opportunistic cat burglar breaking into someone’s conservatory, and lets a chilly draught into the space. This is just temporary, and we’re pretty hardy, though we did have to move tables.
Gone are the tartan textiles and sagey lettuce hues. Now it’s all on one level, there are lapis-coloured pillars, and bright Fire Thistle velvet wall fabric, in vibrant Skittles colours, by clever young Scottish designer Mairi Helena. I liked it before, but this look gives the space a bit more personality.
Although they’ve kept their lovely staff and most of their classic dishes, the menu has been tweaked too.
You could just have a filled Aberdeen buttery for lunch, but we went for the appealing-looking two courses for £22 option.
My Belhaven salmon was breezy, with a vortex-like swirl of silky fish, and a few subtle accessories, like pinkie rings of pickled onion, green and delicate dill tuille shards, and buttons of Katy Rodger’s crème fraîche, as smooth as the movements of Raeburn’s Skating Minister.
We also snaffled the Eyemouth crab, which was sandwiched between two pieces of “French toast”, which seemed like ordinary toast to us, and came with a moon of lush harissa-injected mayonnaise. Pleasant, but mains were more exciting.
I had a soft slab of Ramsay of Carluke pork belly, which was draped with a bubbly and amorphous puff of beige crackling.
There was also some pak choi, a bank of “pickled gooseberries” (a bit like a nice tangy chutney) and a splash of rich jus, all flanked by three quenelles of fluffy Phantassie carrot purée, as orange as an Oompa Loompa’s foundation.
The rump of lamb was a beaut, too. It came with a few more interesting accoutrements.
There was a cross section of lightly toasted torched Romanesco, like Peter Rabbit had dropped his fag in Signore McGregor’s garden, cauliflower purée, cabbage and a crumbly dukkah with pistachios, mint and cocoa nibs. Yes please.
We squeegeed up the various sauces and purées with a side of giant hand-cut chips (£4.50). They seemed to be missing the billed herb salt, but did come with a pot of slick black garlic aioli, which was way more interesting than mayo.
Their pudding of chocolate tart (£7) was rather good, with a four inch high mousse-y Valrhona 70 per cent filling that had a nice tang to lift the sugaryness. The accompanying praline ice-cream was pleasant, on a handful of chocolate soil, though a bit freezer burnt and ice crystally. We should have Sensodyne-d up.
We’d also gone for one of their cakes, since they looked so bonnie.
Sadly, the sponge part of the banana cake with ground almonds, butterscotch and caramelised hazelnuts (£4) was a bit heavy. It was rather like the bricks monkeys might use on a primate-themed episode of Grand Designs. We did like the huge minarets of caramel-drizzled icing on top, though, and the nuts and sugary crumbles that nestled in the gaps.
Phew, it’s great as always here, and looks beautiful. I knew it would be. Never had any shred of a doubt.
(Carina: your copy is due next week).
Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh