The Atrium

Another day, another dose of DIY. At the start of 2001 darling Snoogums and I embarked on an ambitious programme of decoration and renovation to get the house ready for our first baby. (Due just one month from now–ack!) We’ve got a new wooden floor in our living room. We’ve stripped wallpaper, painted, put up skirting boards, hung blinds, panelled ceilings and clad walls. We’ve bought rugs, sofas, shelves, pictures, mirrors, a changing table, a cot, and a rocking chair. We’re on a first-name basis with the staff our local Mothercare, and if we spent any more money at Ikea, they’d probably just forget about checkouts altogether and give us the title deeds to the store.

Boy, am I now sick of home improvements.

Fortunately, my parents came down to help us out this last weekend. Together, we managed to finish off both our living room and the baby room. The interior of our house is now completely done. Only the garage remains. And with Snoogums looking like she has a 20lb turkey strapped to her tummy, that has now become my personal responsibility.

And what could be better, after a long and stressful day’s work (please don’t ever ask us about attaching venetian blinds), than to relax with a fine meal and a bottle of wine? Well, by the time 18:30 rolled around, I think we would all have preferred to say “bed”, but we forced ourselves to go out anyway.

The Atrium restaurant resides in the same building as the Traverse Theatre on Cambridge Street. This is just behind the Usher Hall, and not a million miles away from the King’s Theatre and the Cameo Cinema, so if you’re planning a night’s entertainment, its location could hardly be better.

The restaurant’s decor is subdued, mellow, and chunky. Heavy dark wood is everywhere, as is aged copper and bronze. The scalloped ceiling is partly covered with sail-like hangings, and a similar material is used to cover th
e spindly chairs. (The chairs were, unfortunately, a bit on the hard side. By the end of our meal we found ourselves shifting from cheek to cheek trying to get comfortable.) Intricate modern chandeliers and carefully placed indirect spots produce soft light and a warm atmosphere.

The menu comes on an A5 sheet of high-quality paper, with its corners slipped into slits on a thick sheet of brushed copper. There were five starters, five main courses, and five desserts on it, but there was also a fixed menu with a different selection of items. (The fixed menu was £25 per head. For an extra £13.50, though, you could get a glass of Sommelier’s choice wine to match each dish. For that price, the menu and wine combination represents excellent value.)

While we were making our selections, my parents both had a glass of Chardonnay Kir, which they said was very good. My gin and tonic was pretty mediocre, but it served its evolutionary purpose of refreshing my mouth and relaxing me into the evening.

Before our starters arrived, we were presented with a few amuse-bouches of melba toast with goats’ cheese and red pepper, and salmon tartare tartlets. The goats’ cheese was wonderfully creamy, nasal and pungent. The salmon tartare didn’t strike me quite so well, but that’s probably because I’m not a huge tartare fan in general. There’s something about the raw meat and onions that just doesn’t work for me. (I pick the onions off the top of my hamburgers at McDonalds, too.)

My starter was a mussels, sweetcorn and saffron stew (£8.50)–an interesting combination. It arrived beautifully presented on the plate, a delicate pile of steamed mussels, thin strips of onion, and crunchy sweetcorn at the centre of a moat of creamy yellow sauce. But scattered around the plate were what appeared to be chunks of tinned pineapple. Hello, I thought; that’s even more unusual than I was expecting. A quick poke with a fork showed that they were, in fact, cubes of steamed potato which had absorbed the saffron colour of the sauce.

Also, contrary to my expectations, the dish turned out to be rather tangy. The mussels provided a layer of seafoody flavour, but the onions and the sauce gave it a definite bite. The wine we had chosen for the meal was a Lingenfelder 1997 Riesling spatlese (£24.50). It was crisp and fizzy up-front, and pleasantly dry, but I found that its own tanginess was too close a match for my starter.

By contrast, the Riesling turned out to be the perfect accompaniment for my main course: a thick slice of roast pork loin, with roast apples and parsnips, and a generous ovoid of buttery mashed potatoes (£18.50). I don’t normally like parsnips, but these were roasted to the point of being sweet and caramelised on the outside. The mash was perfectly smooth, yet not excessively creamy. It retained a starchy potato texture, while still melting in the mouth. The pork was in prime condition, dense, a bit dry, and hugely flavourful. It also had a delicious layer of crispy golden crackling attached. The only thing that let it down was the bed of shredded cabbage on which it was served. I know that cabbage traditionally goes with pork, but I’ve never been able to stomach the stuff. (And the menu never said anything about it. If I’d known, I may have gone for the venison instead.)

Now so far, the meal had been gradually following an upward trend. Little did I realise how much better it could get.

My dessert was an apple tarte tatin with caramel ice cream (£4.50), and it is one of the best desserts I have ever tasted. My first bite of the ice cream was like taking a bite of fresh caramel–the kind you make yourself straight from sugar. It was creamy, with the back-of-the-mouth tang you get from something so intensely sweet and strong it tries to burrow straight from your mouth into your brain.

The tarte tatin itself was baked almost black, sticky and caramelised. The flavour of the apples shone through like a blazing Northern Star. The pastry was dense yet easily cuttable, and drenched in sweet apple and sugar. The tarte was surrounded by a delicate vanilla glaze: a simple, thin sugar syrup, dotted with almost microscopic vanilla seeds. I put my nose close to the plate and breathed it in deeply. I fingered it and took a fingertipful into my mough, enjoying it in its own right, completely separate from the rest of the dish. It was heaven on a plate.

Darling Snoogums, in the meantime, was tucking into a lemongrass crème brulée, with a brandy snap full of lemon and lime sorbet. I managed to convince her to give me a bite, and at that moment I realised that the next time I go back to the Atrium, I will just be ordering a complete selection of their desserts–nothing else.

If I do that, though, I’ll have to make sure to get a proper dessert wine to go with it, though, as unfortunately the Riesling just couldn’t cut it going up against all that sweetness.

But seriously, folks–the Atrium serves some excellent food. The reason I’m giving it four stars rather than five is because the starter was a bit strange (not bad, mind you, just…different), and because the main course, although wonderful in flavour, was a bit ordinary in scope for a restaurant of this calibre. (I think I may be starting to get more critical in my old age 🙂

Price-wise, we paid £45 a head, including pre-dinner drinks, wine and water. This may seem quite hefty, but that just reflects Edinburgh pricing for a top-quality restaurant. And there is no doubt that the Atrium is top quality. We all had a fantastic time, and got back home feeling as if the whole day had been one big party. If a restaurant can do that after DIY hell, I can’t do anything but give it a hearty recommendation!