Award-winning restaurant specialising in Scottish food and ingredients situated at the Royal Mile's halfway point.
A somewhat charmless lunch in a High Street cellar
Reviewed by Euan Andrews
Monday, June 13, 2011 - 2:27pm
As I wander down the Royal Mile on a sunny spring lunchtime, I’m filled with hope and expectation for my first, and, as we shall see, probably only visit to Monteiths. Although situated slap in the middle of the High Street’s tartan tat zone, this little hideaway has managed to earn a seriously good reputation as restaurant and wine bar for the cream of Edinburgh’s schmooze elite.
Surrounded on all sides by Jimmy Hats and Scotch Pies, Monteiths would be easy to miss were it not for the glittering entrance through which you pass. The narrow tenement wynd which leads to the restaurant is festooned with branches and small glowing lights, giving a sense of crossing some kind of portal into a mythical Scotland crafted from Brigadoon and The Wicker Man.
Unfortunately, following this brief digression into Fairyland, we then find ourselves crashing back down to reality with a resounding clunk. At 1pm on Friday lunchtime, Monteiths is deserted. In fact, not simply deserted, it looks as though they’ve forgotten to even open. The darkly lit chamber, filled with old-style furniture with the odd modern twist, is like the Marie Celeste. Service cupboards lie wide open and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits thunders out from across the bar. I actually find myself wondering whether we’ve stumbled into some new variant on Edinburgh’s Ghost tours.
A somewhat flustered waitress appears, not looking especially pleased to see us, and tells us to sit wherever we like. M and I are here to sample the a la carte menu today, as we’d requested when booking. This seems to be slightly problematic as they’re still printing out the menus, but they’ll be along shortly. I begin to wonder whether someone at Monteiths has made a monumental cock-up. Were they actually supposed to be closed today? Is the a la carte menu not actually offered usually during the day? So many mysteries left unexplained.
Finally we are presented with our freshly minted menus. I certainly can’t accuse them of slouching when it comes to the food on offer. This is refined modern Scottish dining using excellent traditional ingredients. While the sun blazes outside, we sit here in the dim shadows and give our orders. It feels as though we’re in some restaurant sepulchre, cloistered away from the light and warmth just feet away from us. I feel like a vampire getting ready to dine.
Our starters arrive to the incongruous musical backdrop of Bob Dylan crashing out “Like a Rolling Stone”. My grilled queenie scallops in a fennel and sorrel sauce are pleasantly sweet, though it seems oddly over-fussy to serve them in their shells and then place them on a bed of green leaves. A pointless and needless garnish. M’s seared rabbit parfait is a most peculiar creation. Instead of the expected silky-smooth pate, a massive lump of rabbit meat appears on the plate. Parts of the rough textured meat are the wrong side of pink, and in the centre of this bizarre edifice to dead bunnies is a large chunk of what seems to be coarse and nastily unpalatable rabbit offal. A strange Frankenstein’s monster of a dish which really needs returning to the operating table.
Mains are a slight improvement. My roast rump of Ayrshire lamb comes swimming in mint jus with sautéed cabbage and sprouting broccoli. The lamb is technically perfectly cooked, yet lacking in flavour. The generously proportioned sweetbreads which accompany the lamb easily steal the dish. Don’t turn your nose up at good sweetbreads; they’re a thing of melt in the mouth joy.
M seems happy enough with her red mullet fillet with creamed peas, leeks and smoked bacon lardoons, but I can tell she is somewhat lacking in enthusiasm. So am I. It’s hard to get enthusiastic about an experience which feels like sneakily having a meal in someone’s private apartment while they’re out.
Bob is now nasally whining his way through “Lay Lady Lay” for the third time since we entered this lifeless crypt. We decide to cut our losses, skip dessert and grab the bill. It’s clear the waitress wants to get on with the hoovering (note to restaurant staff: getting the Mr Sheen out and doing a major furniture polish will not make your two sole customers feel welcome). Maybe they had a big party the night before.
Maybe someone was ill. Maybe they took our booking by mistake or maybe they just didn’t really give a shit on the day. Who knows? Monteiths have a fine upstanding name in Edinburgh and on a good night with the right company it’s probably a smashing place to be. But first impressions define one’s opinion, and my first impressions of Monteiths mean I won’t be going back.
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