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?

The Plumed Horse

**UPDATE (23 February 2001)**
Just last month the Plumed Horse was awarded their first Michelin star! Although the AA hasn’t upgraded their two-rosette rating (yet), the nod from Michelin acknowledges the Plumed Horse not just as one of the top restaurants in Scotland, but also as one of best in Britain.

Gomez – Liquid Skin

I’d been aware of Gomez since the won a Mercury Music Prize for album of the year in 1998 (with their debut, Bring It On). I’d never listened to them a lot, but every now and then I’d catch them on late-night radio, MTV-2, or playing live on “Later” with Jools Holland. Then, a couple of weeks ago, as we were tidying up our office, one of my colleagues put on this album: Liquid Skin

Right from the very first track “Hangover”, I was hooked. With its jangly guitar work and up-beat blues rhythm, it feels like it has stepped straight off the streets of New Orleans. The second song, “Revolutionary Kind” follows in similar footsteps, but at a more relaxed tempo. The third track, though (“Bring It On”), is completely different, and made me go out the next day and buy the album. It still sends shivers up my spine every time I hear it–especially with the volume cranked up as far as common sense and neighbourly courtesy allows.

Gomez has three main vocalists, Tom Gray, Ian Ball, and Ben Ottewell. On “Bring it On” they all join in, alternating and interleaving the lines of the first two verses, before giving way to Ottewell’s gravely roar for the choruses. And just when you think the song is going to carry on at a full rolling boil, they bring it back to a simmer and play it out loud but calm. It’s a masterpiece of tightly controlled raw energy.

The rest of the album is all about contained energy, too. Even at their most laid back, on tracks like “Blue Moon Rising” and “Rosalita”, you always feel like there could be a ripping guitar solo just around the next musical corner. Although they’re young guys from England, they maintain a very mature American sound throughout, partly Southern blues, partly Californian rock. But really, their style is uniquely their own. (The best comparison I’ve been able to come up with so far is Aerosmith crossed with the Neville Brothers. They trick you into thinking that they’re playing much harder rock than they actually are.)

My other personal favourites on the album are “We Haven’t Turned Around”, a hauntingly melancholy song that makes for great late night listening, and the last track, “Devil Will Ride.” Just as the album starts with three attention-grabbers, so they leave you with a wild ride through burning guitars, mixed-up vocal effects, ending up marching through the streets of New Orleans, with horns and clapping and everything. Majestic and absolutely marvellous.

(Now I’m going to have to go out and get their first album, too!)

End Of Days

If there’s a single image from this film that will stick with me, it’s Kevin Pollak’s expression whenever he’s on screen. If he’d turned to camera, shaken his head in despair, and said “what am I doing in this movie?” it would have seemed almost entirely in character.

Now, I have nothing whatsoever against Arnold Schwartzenegger, but he’s not really an actor: he’s a Movie Star. Put him in a film that plays to his strengths, like True Lies, The Terminator or the much-maligned Kindergarten Cop, and he shines. Put him in a role that asks him to display a certain depth and range of emotion, like that of Jericho Cane, the tortured anti-hero of End Of Days, and he is little better than a plank. He can pull a suicidal grimace in the morning twilight of a shabby apartment, but as soon as he opens his mouth you just have to wince. His lines sound like he’s chewed them at least twice before choking, and regurgitating them–with difficulty.

Arnie himself is the first, and biggest mistake this film makes. Kevin Pollak, who plays Chicago, Arnie’s sidekick, knows it, and you can read it on his face in every scene they share. Almost any current male lead you can think of could have injected more realism into Jericho’s character. Christine York, played by Robin Tunney (whom you may remember as the not-evil one from The Craft) is the only character who seems to be able to take him seriously.

The second great flaw of the film is its script. Written by Andrew W. Marlowe, who did a fairly decent job on “Air Force One” a few years ago, it takes absolutely ages to go anywhere. The first forty-five minutes lazily set the scene: in the last days of 1999, the Devil takes the form of a man so that he can impregnate the chosen one (Christine), and thus bring about the “End Of Days.” Just how the end of the world will come about is never explained. Is a simple bout of demonic nookie enough to open the gates of Hell, or will we have to wait for the resulting offspring to wreak Damien-like havoc on us all? Who knows? Who cares?

After this has been set up, the rest of the film consists mostly of a lot of running around with all parties concerned trying to find and snatch Christine from each other. All the parties are:

(1) Jericho and Chicago, who work for a private security firm. They were on duty trying to protect a Wall Street Banker (whose body had been taken over by the Devil), when a rogue priest tried to assassinate him. Rather than just taking their danger bonus and letting the police handle things from there, they take it upon themselves to figure out what’s going on.
(2) The Devil, played by Gabriel Byrne with about as much menace as a pop tart.
(3) The Bad clergy, who want to kill Christine before she can have it off with the Devil.
(4) The Good clergy, led by Father Kovac (Rod Steiger), who want to take Christine in and protect her until the whole thing blows over.

Any story involving supernatural beings has to be careful in plausibly restricting the powers that these beings have access to. End of Days falls woefully short in this regard: the Devil can apparently possess any body at will, but he chooses one with no straightforward access to Christine. He can raise bodies from the dead, but he can’t force or torture Jericho into revealing Christine’s location. The Devil only gets this opportunity to destroy the world once every thousand years, so why didn’t he plan the whole thing out more carefully? Oh, well, better luck in 2999.

Believable, no. Exciting, not really. Tense, only occasionally. Humorous, yes, but unintentionally so. There are some decent special effects (the sex scene is eerily impressive), but with the bulk of the film shot in almost pitch darkness, it’s hard to pick them out. It’s got high production values, but that’s just not enough to save a film.

Director Peter Hyams can do, and has done, a lot better than this (Outland, Capricorn One and Running Scared are a couple of excellent examples), but on the other hand, his career is littered with some amazing turkeys (Stay Tuned and Sudden Death immediately spring to mind). Unfortunately, End Of Days belongs in the latter category.

Deep Blue Something – Byzantium

Remember the song "Breakfast at Tiffany’s"? I can hardly believe it was released back in 1995. Even now, you only have to hum a bar or two of its chorus, and pretty soon everyone around you will be humming or whistling, or singing along under their breath. But, as my lovely wife pointed out, it’s one of those songs where no-one can remember anything but the chorus.

The band was Deep Blue Something, and the album it came from was called Home. The one I want to review, though, is their follow-up, Byzantium. (I was just warming you up with some background…) Having loved Home, I got Byzantium as soon as I saw it in January 1998. At first I found it disappointing, because it was very different from the earlier album. They seemed to have lost some of the high-energy pop sound, and the tunes weren’t as immediately catchy.

After listening to it for a while, though, I started to appreciate the wide variety of styles and musical influences represented on the tracks. The first song, “Daybreak and a Candle End” starts off with a two-and-a-half minute intro reminiscent of latter-day Rush. “Tonight” has a chanty chorus that could have come from Chumbawamba, and “Cherry Lime Rickey” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Manic Street Preachers’ Generation Terrorists LP.

With 15 tracks on it, Byzantium has something for almost any mood, from the totally chilled out “Enough To Get By,” through the dance-like, driving grooves of “Dr. Crippen” and “Parkbench,” to the all-out rocking anthems “Light the Fuse” and “Becoming Light”. I think I found it hard to like the album initially precisely because it’s so varied. It doesn’t have a unified feel to it, and it isn’t “easy listening” music by any stretch of the imagination. The best classification I can come up with is “Indie Rock”, but that is still too narrow a description by far.

Although Deep Blue Something are from Texas, they have a distinctly British feel to them, and would fit well in a line-up next to groups like Dodgy, Toploader, or the Manics. They’re mostly a guitar band, but Byzantium uses some very nice horn and string arrangements as well. Lyrically, it’s is not hugely involving, but I find that the complexity and intricacy of the music itself more than makes up for this. Overall, it’s one of the most interesting albums in my collection, and one that I come back to time and again.

Darroch Learg

If, when you’re out for dinner, you ask for a gin and tonic, and get offered a choice of Gordon’s, Tanqueray or Sapphire gin, you can be reasonably sure that you’ve ended up somewhere that pays attention to detail, and prides itself on offering a selection based purely on quality. The Darroch Learg Hotel in Ballater (near Aberdeen) is such a place.

With three AA rosettes every year since 1997, it is recognised as one of Scotland’s top restaurants, and this recognition is thoroughly deserved. Two comfortable lounges (one smoking lounge) allow you to enjoy an aperitif or an after-dinner coffee in the kind of surroundings you only see in costume dramas. The dining room is half made up of a large conservatory, which allows the evening sun to sparkle in through the trees of the nearby forest. The whole place exudes old-fashioned charm and timeless style.

All of this would be for nothing, though, if the food wasn’t up to standard. No danger there. The tortellini of crab and langoustine I started with were large and succulent, with the shellfish inside chopped to a moist, flaky consistency. The home-baked breads (sourdough or wholegrain) served with the first course came in very handy for mopping up the crab sauce, and leaving my plate perfectly clean.

For my main course, I had the fillet of Aberdeen beef, with braised shin and green vegetables, served on a bed of creamed celeriac and Madeira sauce. (It was either that or the veal on a bed of puy lentils, with a gratin of potatoes and butternut squash; but fortunately my wife had that, and I could steal a nibble of hers.) Perfectly cooked, fresh fillet tastes buttery and creamy, and this was a fine example of the species. The braised shin provided a rich, almost gamy strength to the dish, while the peas and the green beans were crisp and ripe with their own flavour.

My dessert was crème brulee with toffeed apple rings and apple sorbet. The caramel crust of
the crème brulee was thin, but the body of it was deep and thick, and when I’d scraped the bottom of the ramekin as much as politely possible, the base was covered in tiny vanilla seeds… Rich and delicious.

The wines we had with the meal were an Alsatian gewürztraminer and an Australian Merlot, both from the lower-priced end of the 57-page thick wine list, but perfectly tasty and appropriate nonetheless. For those with more sophisticated tastes, the selection was elaborate, though my personal favourite (Tokaji, for dessert) was absent.

Overall, the quality of the meal was excellent, and the surroundings luxurious. The hotel is run by Nigel and Fiona Franks, who work hard to make every guest feel special, and succeed admirably. The price for this three-course experience is a mere £33 a head (excluding wine), and that kind of value is hard to find these days. If you’re visiting the area, you’d have to look really hard for a reason not to choose the Darroch Learg for an evening out.