Merienda, 30 North West Circus Place, Edinburgh EH3 6TP (0103 220 2020). All savoury dishes £5.90-£9.50, desserts £7, wines from £26
There is a strain within postwar modern sculpture that, like the male ego, is dependent for its impact on enlargement. The small and banal is rendered otherworldly and apparently interesting simply by dint of having been expanded to something far beyond the expected. Think Jeff Koons’s shiny, polished balloon animals, inflated to elephantine size, or the 70m-long pink knitted rabbit, seemingly dropped on to a hillside by the Austrian art collective Gelitin, as if the discarded toy of some unimaginably giant child.
Don’t worry. This is still the restaurant column. Art criticism remains the sacred domain of my marvellous colleague Laura Cumming. But dinner at Merienda, in Stockbridge, to the north of Edinburgh’s city centre, did make me brood on those vast, one-trick sculptures. Because, whether consciously or not – let’s go with not – it feels like the kitchen here is attempting a reverse manoeuvre: rendering the ordinary much more interesting, simply by making it very small indeed. As each tiny plateful arrives, I am forced to push my reading glasses up the bridge of my nose and peer down, as if examining a rare jewel. Is this an intense and thrilling examination of the impact of sustained heat on the natural sugars deep within orange squash? Or is it, you know, just a really, really small portion of roasted veg?
It’s a risky strategy. Early on I run my finger down the list of dishes, all at around £7 or £8, and thinking myself a veteran of this sharing plate thing, this clattering parade of “never enough” and “more please”, I conclude the three of us will need three dishes each. Our waiter takes a sharp intake of breath. “Well,” she says, solemnly, “they are tasting-menu size.” Oh joy. We will therefore need more. Quite a few more. Which means it’s not quite as good value as at first it seemed.
It also means the kitchen has set itself a trap. If it’s about small and often, then they can’t get away with a compact menu of greatest hits. There are more than 20 dishes on offer tonight. The fact is few kitchens, operating outside of a set repertoire – I’m excluding those working in, say, Chinese traditions – can pull off a long menu. It’s always going to be a case of big hitters, solid fillers and “What the hell were they thinking?”
So it proves. In October, Merienda joined the ranks of those like the Leaping Hare, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, which have received a Bib Gourmand from Michelin. A reminder: it’s meant to signify good food at a reasonable price, currently £30 for three courses or the equivalent. I can see that at Merienda you can, if you choose well, get exactly that. You could also get something decidedly less so.
But in the words of the song, let’s accentuate the positive. There is a crisp friable disc of filo pastry, piled with lubricated white crabmeat, topped in turn with a full Ker-Plunk of green apple batons, in a puddle of brisk acidic dressing. Of course, being tiny, it’s gone quickly. We miss it because it is sweet and salty and crisp and crunchy. Finely dicing up pear and walnut does not make them into a tartare. That’s a word applied to something served raw when normally it would be cooked. But slathering them in a Roquefort dressing does make it punchy and amusing. We adore a sizable chunk of duck breast, served pink, with a pile of fresh fava beans and loads of crisped chorizo, all bound together by a glossy jus. The roast squash with a few croutons is a nice enough side dish. At the end there is a well-roasted pear with splodges of salt caramel, and a few kernels of caramel popcorn as if someone had left a bag of Butterkist open, and it was felt better to use it.
Other things just missed the point, baffled us or weren’t very nice. “Bean purée with parsley pesto and powdered porcini mushroom”, sounds both rugged and flashily modern at the same time. But nice words are not the same as nice things to eat. It is just a bit gritty and salty. So too, the “nage poached Hebridean salmon, potato, dill, carrot cream” in which the fish has been so overpoached and so grossly underseasoned that you couldn’t help wishing the poor animal had been left to live out its days back in the Hebrides. It is the dull salmon dish at the summer wedding you didn’t really want to attend in the first place.
Still, at least it is recognisable as food. The “tuna carpaccio, radish, lobster vinaigrette, blue spirulina” looks like a plate you’d pick up in a Chania souvenir shop as a memento of a jolly Cretan holiday: petals of all but tasteless purple tuna, laid in a star pattern, are interspersed with dribbles and drops of tasteless sauce in two shades of blue, like Dulux emulsion. There’s a good reason why savoury foods are rarely blue. It’s a plate of wrongness that also tastes of nothingness. (In case you’re wondering, spirulina is a blue-green algae often used as a feed supplement for aquaculture. Doesn’t that just make you purr, “Ooh. Dinner.”)
Alongside the poached pear we have a chocolate mousse heavy with the cocktail-bar coffee-tang of Kahlúa, and a bouncy, shuddering coconut panna cotta. So here we sit, in the moodily downlit dining room with its semi-open kitchen and its Stockbridge date-night chatter, trying to work out whether this has been a good experience or not. It is, we conclude, the proverbial curate’s egg: good in parts.
Service is friendly and efficient, although our waiter can’t quite cope when I say politely that we’ll fill our glasses ourselves. She insists it’s her job, that she is specifically there to take away the stress of clocking that your wine glass is empty and then lifting a bottle to fill it. Except I find someone filling my glass when I don’t want it filled to be, in itself, stressful. Please, if someone says they’re good with the whole wine glass thing, let them get on with it. Yeah, I know. There are worse problems in the world. I should get over myself. But that’s the point of nice restaurants. They’re meant to be places that keep all those terrible problems at bay. They’re meant to offer something consistent and reliable. But sometimes, as at Merienda, they just leave you scratching your head.
Back in the centre of Edinburgh at the Waldorf Astoria Caledonian hotel, there’s Grazing by Mark Greenaway, offering a menu of small, big and sharing plates. Greenaway comes from the fancier end of the restaurant business, but here he’s avoided the overly refined. Instead, he’s knocking out food that’s undeniably clever, but never short on big flavours: try the fried duck egg with duck ham and a confited leg, the gnocchi with parmesan and baby spinach, or a whole shepherd’s pie to share (markgreenaway.com).
Stu Deeley, who won MasterChef: The Professionals just before Christmas, is leaving Birmingham restaurant The Wilderness, where he has been head chef since 2017. Deeley, who won with dishes including pork belly with black pudding, langoustine, fennel and yuzu gel, will open his own restaurant in the city later in the year, serving a menu of what he calls ‘Brummie fusion food’.
Meanwhile Bristol restaurant The Ethicurean, a former winner of Best Ethical Eats in the OFM awards, has announced it will mark its tenth anniversary by opening a second site at the Trevibban Mill Vineyard near Padstow in Cornwall. It will be open for lunch and dinner and, perhaps unsurprisingly, will offer pairings with wines from the vineyard (theethicurean.com).
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/jan/19/mereienda-edinburgh-good-in-parts-restaurant-review