Neil Braidwood finds a culinary haven in Edinburgh’s busy west end.
The idea of sustainability is high in everyone’s minds at the moment. The seas are awash with plastic, animals farmed intensively and flavour seemingly an afterthought.
Forage & Chatter, open for just over a year, is a restaurant with a mission to cook and serve delicious food sourced from within a 25 mile radius. Not such a crazy idea – it wasn’t that long ago that this was a necessity for nearly all restaurants. By doing this, you support local businesses such as butchers, fishmongers and farmers. The restaurant also has a professional forager, sustainably harvesting plants like sea buckthorn in East Lothian.
My wife Maureen and I visited one Saturday lunchtime. As we pushed our way through the throngs of west end shoppers to the basement entrance of the restaurant, we felt an instant sense of calm as we took in the surroundings.
The immediate restaurant area has banquette seating upholstered in tweed, which nods to our Scottish heritage, but with a modern twist. Quirky ironwork, exposed stonework, rustic wooden tables with potted herbs lend a relaxed feeling to the space. We are led through the back of the building, to a reclaimed triangular courtyard which, although ‘outside’ has a roof and heaters. It’s busy here, mainly couples enjoying some respite from the Saturday shopping routine over a glass of wine. The French band Air was playing over the speakers, setting the tone as well and truly cool.
We are presented with a limited set lunch menu and an a la carte option. “Everything is sourced seasonally” it was explained by our knowledgeable waiter, and we were left to take in the surroundings and choose our food.
Maureen chose a winter vegetable salad, with a house-made ricotta from the set menu, while I went a la carte and opted for the crab bisque with mussels, leeks and fennel. When this arrived, the bisque (or strained broth) was poured theatrically onto the mussels et al. With a strong, yet delicate flavour, I really enjoyed the taste. Maureen’s salad starter had tiny, crunchy mushrooms sprinkled over the vegetables, while the scoop of cheese “felt like creme fraiche” she thought.
The portions were packed with flavour, but small – so we decided to order a side portion of buttered new potatoes to accompany our mains. I chose red deer loin with celeriac, kale, chestnut and juniper (my kind of food), while Maureen decided on beef fillet with celeriac puree, kale and potatoes. The beef was rarer than Maureen would have liked (she asked for medium rare), but actually, she was surprised when she found herself enjoying it. “Pretty perfect”, she exclaimed.
My venison was melt in the mouth delicious, also quite rare, but beautifully presented. The side dish of potatoes was probably a mistake as I couldn’t finish them all, and Maureen’s dish was more filling than she had expected.
We still had room for dessert though, so I chose apple and oat crumble with salted caramel ice cream. Maureen had a sea buckthorn (no doubt foraged earlier) carrot cake, with orange, white chocolate and pistachio. This arrived, somewhat deconstructed, with piped pureed carrot blobs on the plate and the nuts crumbled on top. Maureen was a bit disappointed – it was small, but also, having the carrot detached from the cake was a bit odd, and the chocolate too sweet for her taste.
My crumble was more traditional in appearance, and the salted caramel ice cream was definitely home made, and again, bursting with flavour.
We finished with coffees, and reflected on the value of what we had eaten. Maureen had stuck to the set lunch choices, which are slightly smaller portions than those on the main menu, but for three courses at the time of our meal (January 2018), it was £17.95. My choices were all from the main menu, so totalled £38. We hadn’t had any wine – choosing to stick to the branded sparkling water.
Our meal was delicious, and the service unobtrusive but attentive. We made our way back into the stream of Edinburgh shoppers, feeling a little more relaxed than when we had gone in.