Restaurant Martin Wishart

The Shore area in Leith used to be dingy and disreputable. The lisp-inducing enunciation exercise "The Leith Police dismisseth us" probably arose because they were too busy processing prostitutes and disposing of dope-dealers to spare a few moments for the poor speech therapist in question.

A decade of urban renewal has seen off this seedy image, though, and the Shore is now packed to the rafters with trendy loft apartments, restaurants, bars, cafés, and design agencies. Restaurant Martin Wishart sits on the Shore itself, with a view out over the picturesque (and only slightly smelly) Water of Leith. Last Friday a couple of colleagues and I were entertaining a client before an afternoon meeting, and this was the recommended venue.

I was wearing a pair of chinos and a (rather stylish) company polo shirt, but I felt quite underdressed as soon as I walked in the door. The people already seated for their lunches were wearing jackets and ties, or smart dresses. Of the rest of us, only one was wearing a suit, though, so I didn’t feel too bad. We were seated by two French-accented staff, and throughout the rest of the meal I’m sure we were attended by at least three others. It’s a small restaurant, seating about thirty at a push, and I’m a bit confused as to how they managed to squeeze them all in at the same time. As a result, though, the service was excellent, and we were never short of a pair of hands to refill our water glasses. (Yes, water–this was lunch, after all. Surely you don’t think I’d drink during office hours?)

Unfortunately, the food didn’t match up to this standard. I started with a ravioli of salmon, in a light curry and mussel jus and French beans. The jus was indeed light and tangy, and went very well with the mussels (I’ll have to try mixing these flavours myself at some point), but the salmon inside the ravioli was an unrecognisable paste, with hardly any flavour of its own. The homemade white bread on the side was very good, though, and sopped up the just very nicely.

My main course was a daube of beef on a bed of creamed potatoes, with glazed vegetables and a sweet jus. Again, the rich, gamy jus came off best, but the heart of the dish disappointed. The beef was cooked to the point of flakiness but it tasted, well…stewed (if that’s not too much of a tautology) and watery. I don’t think it had been near this, or any other kind of gravy until it hit my plate.

Given the excellent reputation Martin Wishart enjoys, I couldn’t help but feel let down by my meal. Their lunch menu is £13.50 for two courses, £15.50 for three (£1.25 extra for coffee or tea); a three-course dinner with coffee or tea will set you back about £32.50. Their presentation is unquestionably good, and it was a very pleasant location in which to partake of a business lunch. However, given the huge choice of other restaurants nearby, the quality of the food would discourage me from coming back again. Pity.


When I was growing up, we lived on the outskirts of Heerlen. This is a fair-sized town of about 100,000 people, but the nearest big city was Maastricht. At no more that half an hour’s drive or train journey away, we would go there to shop, have a bite of lunch, and stop off at a cafe for a drink.

Now that I’m living in Scotland, and my parents have moved back here as well, I don’t go back there much. In fact, this weekend is the first time I’ve visited since 1995, and oh, how I’ve missed the place! The narrow streets, the white-painted brick houses, Dutch language all around me…. Even simple things like street signs made me ridiculously happy with floods of childhood memories. (So bear in mind while you’re reading this review that my opinion is probably heavily coloured by nostalgia.)

Also note that this is a long article, but I won’t be offended if you bale out early. I’ve split it into the following sections for your reading convenience:

  1. General
  2. Travel/Getting There
  3. Hotels
  4. Eating
  5. Drinking
  6. Conclusion


Maastricht is located in the very southernmost tip of the Netherlands. If you check it out on a map, you’ll find that there’s a province called Limburg attached to the body of the Netherlands like a tail. It burrows down between Belgium and Germany. Maastricht virtually spreads out over the Belgian border, and is so close to Germany that the local airport has now been renamed Maastricht/Aachen Airport. You’ll get to Aachen faster from there than getting from Heathrow to the centre of London.

This part of the world is famous for a number of things. Food is one of them, but for the historically minded, there are Roman excavations and dozens of medieval churches and abbeys. This area used to be a hive of roman activity, and in the centre of Maastricht it’s almost impossible to do any building work without hitting the remains of a Roman villa, barracks, or bathhouse. (Famously, excavations once held up work on a city centre hotel’s basement for three years. Eventually the hotel just gave up and integrated the site as a tourist attraction.)

Under the hills of Maastricht and its surroundings (no, this part of the Netherlands is not flat) you will find miles and miles of caves. Some of these are natural, others are man made. These were used as hideouts during the wars, and in the fifties and sixties some were converted into nuclear fallout shelters. The nearby town of Valkenburg is a tourist trap of the first water, but it does have good guided tours of some spectacular examples.

Having just mentioned the wars, there are several American and British war cemeteries nearby that are worth a visit, too. Ask at the local VVV shop (tourist information) for more details.

Although there is much more to Maastricht than its city centre, this is where most of the “action” is: cafés, restaurants and shops, all in a gorgeous setting of atmospheric pedestrianised streets and cobbled plazas. There are a few department stores (Vroom & Dreesman is the main one) and large chains (like C&A), but not too many. Most of the shops are small-to medium sized, with a continental boutique feel to them. It’s great for clothes and shoes, house and kitchenwares, leather goods, and food and drink. At the moment, most clothing is between 25% and 30% less expensive than you’ll find in Britain, and it’s all in a trendy, continental style with brands and labels that will make your friends think you’ve spent a lot more money than you actually have.

For me, an ideal day out in Maastricht would consist of wandering around the town, just browsing the shops in the morning, then sitting out in a café for a beer and some lunch. The afternoon would take care of t
he hard work of shopping (actually *buying* stuff), followed by a few more drinks on a café on the Vrijthof. Drop the shopping off at the hotel, clean up, get changed, and go out for dinner. Weather permitting (Dutch summers are sunny and warm, but a little humid), the evening would be rounded off under the awnings of yet another café.

Note that Dutch shops are generally closed on Sundays, and on Monday mornings. In large tourist areas (like Amsterdam or Maastricht) you may find some places open on a Sunday, but don’t count on it.

Maastricht is also a perfect base for mounting excursions to nearby locations: Aachen, Cologne, Brussels, and Luxembourg are within easy reach, as, of course, is the rest of the Netherlands. Even Paris is not an impossible destination, but you will spend a large part of your day travelling.

If you’re worried about not speaking a word of Dutch, relax. It is quite rare to find a Dutch person who does not speak any English. It is of course polite to learn the phrase for “Do you speak English?” (“Spreekt u Engels?”), but when the reply is “A little bit,” chances are this “little bit” will contain flawless grammar and perfect idiom. Restaurants often carry English versions of their menus, and it is not uncommon for waiters or shop assistants to start talking to you in English if they’ve overheard some of your conversation.


As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, there is an airport nearby, but it’s small, and you might have trouble getting a good fare straight into it. Flying to Amsterdam (Schiphol) might be a better bet. There is a train station right inside the airport. The Dutch adore public transport, and you’ll find the trains to be regular and punctual. A single ticket from Schiphol to Maastricht is fl 51 (£15). Alternatively, you can hire a car and drive down in just a couple of hours.

Also, although they’re in different countries, Düsseldorf (Germany) and Brussels (Belgium) airports are actually closer than Amsterdam, and you might want to check out fares for these two as well.

If you’re taking your own car from Britain with you, Maastricht is within a couple of hours’ drive from the ferry ports at Hoek van Holland and Zeebrugge in Belgium; even Calais in France is only 3-4 hours away.


Seeing as we only stayed in one hotel, I can’t really give an exhaustive list of where to stay. However, if you’re only going for a short break, it will be very much worth your while to get someplace near the centre of the city. Key location markers are the Vrijthof and Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, which are right in the heart of the old town. Anything within five or ten minutes walking distance of one of these squares will make it easy to saunter back home after a late night beer.

We stayed at Hotel Botticelli on the Papenstraat, just round the corner from the Vrijthof. This is a lovely little hotel done in an Italian style. It has a luxurious lounge, a stylish breakfast room, and a small courtyard, covered in plants, where breakfast is served if it’s a nice morning. The rooms are medium-sized, well decorated, cosy and extremely comfortable. Ours was quite warm at night, but an almost silent fan kept us cool while we slept. Breakfasts are typically Dutch, with lots of bread rolls, cheeses and sliced meats. Given its location–right in the centre of a major European city–the price of fl 160 (£45) per room per night is impressively good value. Breakfast is fl 22.50 (£6.50). You will need to book well in advance, though: we only just managed to get in a room over a mid-August weekend by booking in May.


Three magic words: Frites with mayonnaise.

If you’re used to thick, chunky chips with salt and vinegar, having mayonnaise on them instead may sound ever so slightly disgusting. It isn’t, though! Dutch and Belgian chips (“frites”, “friet”, “patates frites”, “patat”, etc.) are thinner and crispier than their British counterparts, and are deep-fried to a perfect golden colour. The mayonnaise is yellower and thicker, and tastes richer than British mayonnaise, too. To be honest, I don’t find the thought of a spoonful of Hellmans on a plate of soggy British chips very appealing, either, but if you’re going to be in the Netherlands, do give it a try. Chip shops (“fritures”) and snack bars are all over the place.

While you’re at it, you might want to try some of the other things the Dutch have with their frites, like a frikandel (a long spicy sausage), a kroket (meat paste inside a crispy breadcrumb shell), a loempia (like a huge spring roll), or sate (pork or chicken kebab sticks in peanut sauce).

Down in the South of the Netherlands, the cuisine has soaked up Belgian and French influences like a piece of bread soaks up warm garlic butter. French restaurants abound, though they’re not always labelled as such. Take for instance the restaurant “‘t Plenkske”, whose name means “the little plank” in the local dialect. It’s a local name, but the food is French, done in a local style. When we went there this weekend I had snails in garlic and herb butter to start with, guinea fowl with mashed potatoes on a bed of green beans and mangetout for my main course, and crème brulée for dessert. The rest of my companions had things like smoked salmon salad, steak, bouillabaisse, and veal and pork stew. It was all utterly gorgeous, and the portions were huge.

How much for this feast, do you think? Between £20 and £25 a head, excluding wine. And we’re talking a top Maastricht restaurant here. Don’t let anyone tell you that “the continent” is expensive.

Another favourite place of mine, and almost a Maastricht institution, is the café/restaurant “In ‘t Knijpke.” It has a wonderful cellar bar downstairs, built into the ancient sewers and vaults. We didn’t get a chance to go this time, but the menu doesn’t vary much. This is the place to go for the best French onion soup, snails, frogs’ legs, and cheese boards in Maastricht. (Actually, I’m not sure if they still server frogs’ legs: the species of edible frog was in danger of extinction about seven or eight years ago, and the restrictions on catching them may still be in place.)


The café is a huge part of Maastricht culture. The locals have evolved café-based relaxation into a true art form. If you go in the summer, most cafés will have some seats outside. Grab yourself a table, sit down, and usually a waiter will come and attend to you shortly. If you’re just having a drink, or a cup of coffee, custom is to pay when your drinks arrive. If you’re settling down for lunch, your waiter will usually scribble your orders down on a little tab which he or she will leave on your table.

As for the drinks themselves, I am reliably informed that Dutch coffee is very good. It’s not anything special like Turkish coffee, just freshly brewed, high quality filter coffee. Most places will server cappuccino or espresso as well.

Beer is the other national drink. There are a truly vast number of breweries around the Netherlands, only the biggest of which have made a dent internationally. Everyone knows about Heineken and Grolsch. Fewer people are familiar with Oranjeboom and Amstel. My personal favourites, though, Ridder and Brand, I’ve never seen outside of the Netherlands. Like pubs in Britain, most Dutch cafés are affiliated with a particular brewery.

If you ask for just a beer (“een pilsje, alstublieft”) you will get it in a 200ml glass, with (if it’s perfectly poured) two fingers of head. If you ask for a large one (“grote pils”) it will probably come in a 400ml glass. These may seem like small portions, but remember that most Dutch beer is stronger than the average British pint

If you’re up for trying something a little different, try a white beer or a dark beer instead. White beer is made with wheat, and is very popular right now. It has the same golden colour as pils, but it’s cloudy rather than clear. Dark beer (Ridder Donker, or Brand Oud Bruin) is my own drink of choice. It is dark in colour, but light and sweet in taste, like caramelised lager. It goes down so easily, you could almost mistake it for a beer-flavoured alcopop.

For a stronger tipple, try a “jenever”, which is Dutch gin. Very strong, flavourful stuff, it tends to be drunk on its own rather than with mixers. (And it comes in very pretty ceramic bottles if you want to take some home with you for a gift.)

One very pleasant thing to be aware of on a warm summer evening is that cafés don’t suddenly kick you out at 12 o’clock because it’s closing time. On a Friday and Saturday evening, most of them stay open well into the night, and only shut down when the last customers leave, or when the staff decide to close up. And if you want to keep drinking, chances are that in a place like Maastricht, which has a large student population as well as lots of tourists, there will be another café open just down the street. During the week, of course, they do tend to close earlier.


Well, I hope I’ve given you a taste of what Maastricht is like. Most of what I’ve been talking about applies equally well in summer and in winter–except the parts about sitting at the outside tables of the cafés. If you go just before Christmas, you get a festive atmosphere and Christmas markets (Aachen and Cologne are especially good for these); if you go in February or March you can catch the Carnival (not my favourite time, but you might like it).

Check it out at your travel agent, or on the web. If you decide to go, remember to come back and write about what you thought!

The Limey

This is one powerful little movie. Although it’s billed as a kind of gangster/crime film, it’s really a highly concentrated character piece about a father’s grief over his lost daughter, whom he never knew well enough. Don’t watch it with expectations of another Reservoir Dogs or Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.

Terence Stamp plays Wilson, a crook who has just been released from prison in England. He gets word from someone in Los Angeles that his daughter was killed in a car crash, and he goes out to California to find out what really happened, and to punish the man he suspects is responsible. Ultimately, the man responsible is punished–but not in the way you’d expect. (I don’t think I’ve given too much away there!)

If you’re familiar with some of Steven Soderbergh’s other films (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Kafka, Out of Sight), you’ll know that he has a very quirky, unique way of telling a visual story in such a way that you feel right inside the characters’ heads. In The Limey he goes almost overboard with tricks like playing the audio track from one scene while cutting back and forth between flashbacks, flash-forwards and flash-completely-sideways. The story may seem disjointed during at first, but that’s because Soderbergh is not really unfolding a plot: he’s showing you the world from Wilson’s point of view. Wilson has been inside for nine years, and now his daughter is dead, and he’s in big bad LA. His thought processes aren’t exactly rational and linear.

Throughout the film, the only character that never says a word (even in the flashbacks) is Jennie (Wilson’s daughter). Yet by speaking with her friends in LA, and by learning about her life, he is carrying on a wordless dialogue with her, remembering the times he spent with her when he wasn’t locked up. (Some of the flashbacks show a very much younger Terence Stamp. At first, I thought the casting director had found an uncanny look-alike; it wasn’t until the credits that I realised that some of the clips came from the 1967 film Poor Cow.)

An action movie, this ain’t. What it is, is a classy, stylish and innovative piece of cinema and storytelling. I haven’t even touched on the beautifully natural performances by Peter Fonda and Lesley Ann Warren, or the haunting piano score, or the astonishing cinematography that jumps from classy panoramic shots to edgy, NYPD Blue style hand-held work…. As for the story, I had a lump in my throat at the end, and there aren’t many crime stories that do that to me.

There is just so much meat in this film, so much to like and to examine over and over again, that it’s hard to praise it highly enough. The only thing wrong with it is Terence Stamp’s cockney accent, which is just too highly stereotyped. But that is really the only fault I can find.

If you love film, you’ll love this film. I guarantee it. And if you’ve got a DVD player, you’ll get a stack of bonuses like a director’s commentary, cast and crew commentary, interviews with the cast, and a behind the scenes featurette. Fantastic!


When I brought Election back from the video store, my darling pumpkin of a wife turned her nose up and sneered at what she thought was going to be yet another teen/high school comedy packed with impossibly beautiful young actroids, cringeworthy humour and adolescent hormonal innuendo. So I watched it on my own after she’d gone to bed. And how wrong she turned out to be!

Reese Witherspoon (Pleasantville, Cruel Intentions) plays Tracy Flick, an extreme overachiever who has set her prissy little heart on becoming president of the school council. Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Freshman, Godzilla) is Jim McAllister, her civic studies teacher. A colleague and friend of his had had his career ruined by Tracey after entering into a misguided emotional affair with her. When McAllister sees that Tracy is running unopposed in the election, something in him snaps. He persuades one of his other students, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to run against her, and proceeds to do all he can to make sure that she loses.

Running alongside the core of the story are two sub-plots that add to the emotional depth and satisfaction of the film: Paul Metzler’s younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), jumps into the election race at one point as a radical abolish the council candidate. Tammy is an angry, intelligent and romantically unfortunate teen, while Paul is a star football player and (at first) the stereotypical dumb jock. With the two of them running against each other, we see a tense but ultimately very sweet brother-and-sister relationship played out.

The other sub-plot takes in the breakdown of McAllister’s marriage, and his somewhat pathetic attempt to have an affair with his ex-colleague’s wife. There is humour here, too, but of a more grown-up nature.

In amusing contrast to some of his previous roles as charismatic and slightly cheeky hero, Broderick plays McAllister as a frustrated middle-aged teacher with a mediocre marriage and a crummy car: he has become one of Ferris Bueller’s teachers. It’s a much more mature role for him, and he pulls it off very well. Reese Witherspoon is perfect as the obnoxious, spoiled Tracy Flick, and the rest of the cast put in solid character performances. Jessica Campbell is definitely a young actress to watch out for, I think.

The film is adapted for the screen (from the book by Tom Perrotta; I haven’t read it, but reviews on Amazon indicate that it’s very good) and directed with flair by Alexander Payne. Occasional freeze-frames isolate comical poses and expressions while voice-overs by the main characters give witty and concise insights into their thought processes. (A series of scenes with all of the characters praying on the night before the election is particularly funny.)

I don’t think it’s really aimed at a teen audience, but it will resonate with anyone who has been through high school. It’s like a cross between American Beauty and Heathers with a lower body count. Alternately funny, tender and cynical, it’s a sleeper classic, with a few pleasant twists at the end. It didn’t receive much attention in the cinemas, but I think it ought to down as one of the better films of the late nineties.


Hanover Street has traditionally (well, for as long as I can remember) been the place to go if you want an Italian meal in Edinburgh. With about five restaurants to choose from in the space of two blocks, pizza and pasta lovers are well catered for. (In fact, Edinburgh has a huge selection of Italian restaurants scattered all over the city. There are concentrations on Lothian Road and Clerk St, both near the theatres and cinemas, but Hanover Street has the benefit of being located right in the centre of town. It also has The Patio, which is probably the best Italian in town, but that’s food for a different review.)

Nargile sits right in the middle of this Mediterranean enclave, and blends in well with the atmosphere of the area. As in all the Italian restaurants, you get a friendly welcome when you walk in the door, and the staff are quite happy to chat and joke with you. The first time I went there was with a party of twelve, and there wasn’t enough space for us all to sit together. We hadn’t booked, but the manager very kindly asked a smaller group if they would move so he could push a couple of tables together for us–very nice, and very accommodating. The restaurant has only been open for a few months, and it still has a slightly tentative feel to it, like they’re really concerned about you enjoying your meal. (This may be because the closest brush most people will have had with Turkish food is at the local kebab shop.)

It had been a long time since I’d eaten at a Turkish restaurant, and most of the food on the menu looked unfamiliar. What I tend to do in situations like that is go with the house specials. In this case, that worked out very well: the house recommended starter is Meze, which is a variety of small starter dishes to be shared. For £5.50 per person you get a huge spread that–like Dim Sum in a good Chinese restaurant–just keeps on coming. First, you get the cold dishes, which include things like steak and mint salad, tomatoes and aubergines, chicken salad, spiced chopped beetroot, houmous, and more, with plenty of pitta bread. Just when you think your appetite has been nicely whetted, they tidy away the plates and bring out goats cheese and phyllo pastry parcels, slices of spicy sausage, and chicken wings. All of them delicious, and great if you’ve got a group of people all tucking in.

On both occasions I’ve been there now (we went back last weekend), I took the Nargile Special for my main course (£12.95, but most dishes are between £6 and £9). This is made up of chopped, stuffed pitta bread covered with thin strips of lamb and baked in a sweet, rich tomato sauce. It comes on a huge oval plate, straight out of the oven, and I defy anyone to eat it and not feel completely stuffed afterwards.

Not so stuffed, though, that I couldn’t try their Baklava (£3.95) for dessert. (To keep from exploding, my darling wife and I shared one.) The pastry was crisp, the layered filling nutty and not too sweet, and when I cut it with my fork a syrupy, honey sauce oozed out, just begging to be wiped up and licked off with my fingers. The whipped cream it came with (a change from the ice cream advertised on the menu) was the only thing that didn’t work: it probably wasn’t, but it tasted like it came out of a can. And the chocolate sprinkles on top were a little tacky.

Nargile prepares a lovely meal, and one that I can heartily recommend. Although the food is completely different, the style of the meal is along the same lines as the more traditional evening out at an Italian, Indian or Chinese. If you’re in Edinburgh, and you fancy being a bit different, why not try a “Turkish” instead?