Joanna Blythman: One of very few independent food businesses in the capital outshines some of its bigger rivals
Every customer is a reviewer. With the rise of social media this is true but what’s more important is true is we’re only as good as our last dish or last coffee that we’ve served. In hospitality you can’t make mistakes. If we do we need to fix it fast and deliver even better the next time.
There are individuals who are paid to review restaurants. Their opinion can make or break a business. Their professional opinion also means a huge amount at industry level. Having someone whos views you value and agree with, rate as an expert and have been acknowledged as one of the best there is has even more importance.
We’ve learned the hard way in the past so are always training the team to be aware that each guest is a future ambassador and each guest could be a reviewer. It does add pressure. It’s like having to run your world championship best at every minute. A trained team that’s confident in its product and service takes the pressure off as professional integrity kicks in but there is massive pressure.
When a new restaurant opens the pressure kicks in even more. Settling the team, ensuring you have a product that the customer wants, getting the systems to work, making sure the equipment functions are all unknowns. If we get it wrong we may lose a customer for life. When your business isn’t established that can be death.
So please always let us know before you leave if we don’t meet your expectations. If we can fix it we will. That’s a Victor promise.
You don’t know when a reviewer is dining. You may spot someone or suspect based on what they’ve ordered or questions that are being asked. You find out when the photography desk of a national paper phones to request images or permission to take photos. Sleepless nights kick in. What will the verdict in print be? Will they like what we’ve done? Did we deliver? Oh no were they in when we had that bad day?
Most reviews come on line at 6am in the morning, some are earlier. You set the alarm and in a daze in the dark you search the link and it’s either “oh dear god” or “thank god” tears of joy.
This one had Victor and I crying with pride. Thank you Joanna.
Full review below
Public suspicion has hung like a brooding cloud over the capital’s Princes Street Gardens ever since the Curious Incident of the Trees in the Night-Time, when the National Galleries of Scotland, aided and abetted by Edinburgh Council, had 44 magnificent, mature trees felled, ostensibly to improve views from and access to the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound. Well, that was the official line. Funny how the tree clearance conveniently enabled the timeous expansion of the Christmas Market, an internment camp-style sprawl of tawdry tat and tourist-fleecing, malodorous fast food enterprises.
Meanwhile the internal ‘remodelling’ of the Scottish National Gallery required the temporary closure of the Scottish Cafe that sits below. Heart in mouth, the word ‘temporary’ always makes me anxious, lest it becomes permanent. The Scottish Cafe is one of very few independent food businesses in Edinburgh’s chain-heavy city centre. We missed it every moment it was closed. We could never afford to lose it.
So there’s a spring in our step when we walk in and find not only that it’s open again, but improved on its past reincarnation. Its ‘new look’ introduces splashes of colour- notably fabric from Timorous Beasties and Bute Fabrics- that emphatically exorcises the ghost of institutional gallery cafeterias past and present. Here’s a bright softness now, more peacefulness, most unusually a highly stroke-able velvet wall from Scottish textile designer Mairi Helena. It deadens noise throughout the restaurant, but if you’d like an especially quiet table, reserve one next to the velvet wall.
The restaurant is run by Carina and Victor Contini, hard working people who perpetually make demands on themselves, always seeking out new ways to up their game. So this glass of kombucha that I’m imbibing is made in Glasgow by the impeccable Clever Kombucha company, a special collaboration using fragrant Amalfi lemons, which the Continis import from Italy. And one of the reasons that salads taste so damn good here is that they’re dressed in the extended family’s gorgeous extra virgin olive oil from Picinisco in Lazio. Rapeseed oil might tick a more local box, but the taste sucks by comparison. And while the Continis sensibly import a few key ingredients, food miles are cut to the minimum because their core suppliers are small-scale Scottish. Bringing food production as close to home as possible, most of the vegetables they use come from their own kitchen garden. It’s this effort that I can taste in my salad of heritage tomatoes- baby, bell-shaped, plum- in shades from almost black, through red to stripy green and marbled yellow, a tumble on the plate topped with white minarets of whipped Crowdie, fresh celery leaves, chickpea crackers that are golden like chocolate Christmas coins, and feisty Bloody Mary dressing made with Edinburgh gin.
Here’s originality: Eyemouth crab, quayside fresh, lemony, sandwiched between warm French toast, a generous dollop of harissa mayonnaise alongside it. The Continis seem to be able to respect traditional while simultaneously subverting it. This is quite the most interesting ‘kedgeree’ I’ve had. Peterhead lightly smoked cod, naturally, a fistful-sized chunk that’s topped with a toasty coconut crumble, along with chopped surf clam, mussels peeping out, oozy-yolk quail’s egg atop the starchy grains that are aromatic with curry spices, yellow from turmeric, piquant with fresh red chilli.
Inverurie lamp rump, tender, rosy, is another plate oozing stylish flair: no predictable spuds but a satiny cauliflower purée, griddled pak choi, spiky Romanesco broccoli, a drop dead delectable winey gravy; its crowning grace is a dusting of pistachio dukkah enlivened by chocolate mint from the garden. We’re dazzled too by the paper-thin ribbons of courgette, strewn with raw peas, and steamed lemon slices. The healthy purity and punchy flavours of this dish sing out and make us feel healthy.
I must be enchanted because I’ve ordered the banana and nut cake, and I hate banana cakes, but a glimpse intrigued me. It’s something else, fluffy, subtle, sticky-sided, lent heft by the nuts, roofed with little domes of mouth-caressing buttercream and praline-crusty nuts. So the trees are gone; I mourn them. But the Scottish Café somewhat takes away the bad taste left by that ignominious episode in Edinburgh’s history.
The Scottish Café, The Mound, Edinburgh 0131 225 1550
Value for money: 9/10
Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2018
Read in the Sunday Herald here