Neil Braidwood is transported to a select slice of Italy in Edinburgh.
The South Bridge in Edinburgh has long been the bastion of fast-food takeaways and tartan tammie tourist shops. So when I heard there was a modern Italian restaurant opening there, offering fine dining in a meticulously renovated building – I was pretty excited.
Once inside, Mono is a welcome haven from the hustle and bustle of the street. Clever vertical wooden shutters adorn the windows, and can be turned to block out passers by, but you certainly feel a world away when you take your seat.
There are two levels to the restaurant. The street level has the bar and some tables, and there is space for more diners downstairs where there is a cosy feel thanks to an ingenious electric stove, with an authentic real flame look.
Wood, cork, rough plaster and leather all combine to generate a minimalist, yet warm interior. There is even a private dining area built into one of the arches of the South Bridge – the exposed one that spans the Cowgate.
The attention to detail in Mono is second to none. The cutlery is Italian and with textured handles and a distinct patina, it feels old and familiar, yet it is new. You soon realise, as you take your seat, that they don’t rush things here.
My wife Maureen and I are served an amuse-bouche – actually three tiny appetisers – cauliflower purée with kohlrabi, ponzu, furikake and mandarin gel, a rabbit consommé with parsley crumb and a caprese ‘explosion’ – flavours of tomatoes, basil and mozzarella in one bite.
Each item is a tiny morsel, but all have interesting and different textures, with tons of flavour.
Maude, our waitress, helpfully explained what was in each dish and even how to eat them. “I find eating this in one go is best, as it literally explodes in your mouth.”
Next was a bread course – four types – focaccia, grissini (bread stick) schiacciattina (cracker style) and a sour dough/rye. All served with a special Sicilian olive oil made by the family of one of the staff – it’s not even for sale it’s so special. The oil was delicate and fragrant, while all the bread tasted delicious.
So far, so amazing. And the best was still to come.
I had chosen rabbit loin for my starter, while Maureen opted for baked ricotta. The rabbit had been arranged on the plate as rolls of the loin, along with a kidney, cooked belly and lardo – cured strips of fatty meat from the rabbit’s back. This was delicate and almost translucent.
Dehydrated carrots, tiny baby carrots and a mustard seed sauce completed the dish. I am used to eating rabbit in a stew, but this was very different – the taste was more subtle than I had expected.
Maureen declared the homemade baked ricotta ‘sublime’ – so smooth and with the last flavours of summer joining it on the plate. Peppers, aubergine, tomatoes and olives – fresh, clean, simple and sweet.
The capers were the size of grapes, while the gnocchi was made with semolina with some pecorino sprinkled on top. The lamb itself was medium rare and melt in the mouth delicious.
My main course was red mullet with spring onions and courgettes cooked all ways, with a flavoursome curried butter poured dramatically over my dish by our attentive and well-informed waitress.
All parts of the courgette had been cooked. From the fruit and flower to the stalks, it was an exercise in how not to waste anything. And I reciprocated, by clearing my plate. Again, the flavours were intense and with just enough heat. Another triumph.
Maureen’s pudding was a theatre piece. New to the menu, this was a plum/chocolate cake, with goat’s curd and pine nut gelato. The finishing touch – a spray or two of Laphroaig whisky from a perfume style atomiser!
The waitress claimed she had been on a training course to learn how to do this! Maureen thought this was divine – from the homemade plum jam to the rosemary infused chocolate, it all combined to make a special seasonal dessert.
I tried the caramelised peach – pieces of sweet fruit, with a delicate amaretti foam, almond biscuits and a smooth peach sorbet – all scattered with aromatic meadowsweet to give texture and an interesting additional flavour.
Over coffee, we deliberated on our meal. It had taken more than two hours, but the time had flown by as there was so much to experience.
There is nowhere quite like this restaurant in Edinburgh, as the cuisine is often blurred with alchemy – it is so inventive. Drawing from simple Italian food and crafting everything from scratch, Mono writes its own rules.