Well-established Edinburgh favourite's West End branch introduces new sharing menu.
Howies Goes Tapas
Reviewed by Euan Andrews
Friday, March 11, 2011 - 4:24pm
Howies is a bit of an Edinburgh institution. With branches on Waterloo Place and Victoria Street, as well as up in leafy and affluent Bruntsfield, they’ve made their reputation in unspectacular style serving up good quality Scottish food for residents and tourists alike.
Their most recent instalment opened up in 2005 in a basement location on the West End’s Alva Street, thus ensuring that there is a Howies at either end of Princes Street. Unfortunately, this branch does seem to have been somewhat overlooked and, whether due to an un-prepossessing corner site or the seemingly permanent scaffolding covering the building, it’s easy to walk by and miss.
Recently, it was relaunched as Howies Cellar. A “sharing” menu has been introduced as well as a new drinks list. The aim seems to have been to re-invigorate this underachiever of the ranks as a kind of bar-diner with the focus on Scottish food and drink.
As aims go, they have achieved this with some distinction. The idea of sitting down with drinks and friends while having Scottish-style tapas brought to the table is one which should be welcomed. Perhaps the Scottish Government should start promoting it so as to tackle the endless “binge drinking” crisis of our nation, as well as bringing us closer in spirit to our European friends?
The restaurant is split into several small seating areas, making it possible to lose oneself in the shadows of a cosy, dark corner.
Most of the sharing dishes hover around the £4-£6 mark, and once chosen they are brought out randomly and when they are ready. This has apparently led to some confusion from some stalwart traditionalists who frequent Howies, expecting a simple starter followed by a main and then wondering why the portions are so small. So, best to order around six or seven dishes between two. You’ll still only spend around £15 each, and the quality and variety makes the exercise worthwhile.
From our selection, venison collops were perfectly medium-rare cooked, pink in the middle and presented with a mound of red cabbage. Lamb stovies with rough oatcakes were a welcome and rare sight on a Scottish menu. I feel that every good food-serving Scottish pub should serve stovies, much in the same way that every good English pub should have pork pies. It’s traditional everyday fare that is part of our food culture, and these stovies were excellent, giving no hint of the recipe’s beginnings as a use for left-overs.
Sweet cured Orkney herring with wasabi laced spring onion and potato salad was a cooling and zesty plate and made an effective contrast. There was the odd hitch, however. The honey-glazed Ayrshire pork belly came complete with a fatty rind with a chewy rather than crisp texture.
More damningly, Howies’ take on the common Spanish tapa of patatas bravas (“fiery potatoes”) came with spuds which seemed to have been given only half the required cooking time. To have hard, undercooked potatoes getting past the head chef and being served is a bad slip-up and it is to be hoped that this was a one-off occurrence.
Desserts were cheap and cheerful, at just over £2. Panacotta and chocolate mousse were nothing special but perfectly nice, all the same.
One aspect I must mention about Howies Cellar, however, is the excellent range of beers. Four ales from the local, award-winning Stewart brewery are on offer. Proper beer has undergone a massive resurgence within the last ten years for the more discerning drinker, and it’s great to see Scottish ales being offered on a menu alongside Scottish food. Top marks to whoever made that decision, and my bottles of Stewart’s Edinburgh Gold and Holyrood made the perfect accompaniment.
This new style of Howies is a worthwhile experiment, despite the odd kitchen malfunction on the day, and I really hope it succeeds. Given the right sort of promotion and coverage, the notion of Scottish tapas could change forever our proud nation’s idea of a pub lunchtime being four pints of Tennants and a Scotch pie with gravy.