Winter Glen

The Winter Glen sits at the bottom of Hanover Street just before it turns into Dundas Street. It’s a basement restaurant, reached by a short set of stairs. Most of the restaurants in this area are two blocks further up towards the centre of town, and with its discreet entryway, the Winter Glen is hardly in your face and screaming for business. It relies on reputation to pull you in, or, if you happen to walk by it every day on your way to work (like I used to), a rather tempting menu.

When we went there last Saturday, the menu was filled with imaginative sauces and variations hung from a backbone of solidly classic ingredients: lots of game and fresh fish. Although there is no a la carte selection, there is plenty of variety on the fixed menu. And at £26 for three courses, the price is pretty decent, too. The wine list is short but adequate if you plan to drink a whole bottle. Being pregnant, my darling snoogums wasn’t drinking, so I just wanted a half. This left me with two reds and two whites, one of which had just sold out. The Pouilly Fumé I ended up with proved quite tasty and crisp nonetheless.

Feeling adventurous, there were two dishes that grabbed my attention straight away. I started with mussels, tiger prawns and scallops in a light fish broth flavoured with Chinese spices. The scallops were a bit small, but the tiger prawns were huge and juicy. The fish broth, though, was the star of this show: it was sweet and exquisitely smooth, like pure distilled shellfish. Put away all images of fish heads bobbing about in a witch’s cauldron, and consider the joys of liquefied crab meat overlaid with the condensed aromas of a Chinese take-away…. Now you’re getting close!

My main course carried on the oriental theme. (I suppose we could have just gone to a Chinese restaurant instead, but hey.) Thin strips of duck breast draped over steamed vegatables, in a sweet oriental jus, with shallots in an orange marmalade. Unfortunately, this is where the disappointment set in. I could forgive them the broccoli (after all, chef could hardly be expected to cater to my every culinary whim), but the shallots and orange completely overpowered the whole dish.

The first bite of duck was delicious. It was cooked pink and moist, and it soaked up the honey-sweet dark jus like kitchen roll. But as soon as the orange aftertaste started to kick in, there was no turning back. The duck’s distinct flavour was washed away. Even pushing the soft, whole shallots to one side wasn’t enough, because the sauce had picked up too much of their flavour. Adding bites of new potato and courgette didn’t help, either. The tang just blasted them away, and I could only tell them apart by their textures.

By contrast, the venison that Abi had was overcooked and tasted of bland, generic Meat Product. We figured that if we put them together we’d have two perfectly flavoured main courses. Set apart, though, they weren’t quite up to scratch. Full points for imagination, but chef’s palette is obviously a bit more robust than mine.

Things started looking up again at dessert, though. I had a mouthwatering slice of lemon and lime tart with a light drizzling of thin vanilla custard, and Abi took the chocolate tart. The base of my slice was a moist, crumbly biscuit and the citrus filling was rich and velvery, melting on my tongue like frozen silk. Tiny strips of lime zest added an occasional extra tang to the mix. The experience was over far too quickly. Abi’s chocolate tart contained the entire cocoa output of a small South American country, yet was almost as light as my citrus tart.

We finished the meal off with coffee and tea. I don’t know why, but I felt unreasonably disappointed when the waiter arrived with just a single cup of tea for me. Normally I don’t drink more than a single cup anyway, but I do rather like having a pot there. I’m sure they would have been only too happy to bring me a refill, but for me it ended the evening on a minor note.

We both came away with mixed feelings about the Winter Glen. The restaurant is decorated in a modern Scottish style, with relatively sparse table settings. The place filled up nicely while we were there (from about 19:30 onwards), and there was a nice buzz to it. The atmosphere is upmarket smart casual; the maitre d’ wore a jacket and an open collar shirt. It is equally suited to business dinners and smart family evenings out.

Food-wise, it was very good, but not uniformly excellent. Starters and desserts were top class, but our main courses let the average down. Also, maybe it was just my selections, but I suspect that chef has a bit of a sweet tooth. That’s fine for me, because I do too, but don’t go there expecting a light touch on your tastebuds.



12 October 2000

Picture below taken at 6 weeks (30 August), but we’ve been waiting until
now to make the formal announcement. It’s now 12 weeks, and this puts us past
the main danger zone for miscarriage, so we feel (relatively) confident
that B will make its appearance somewhere
in the vicinity of 20 April next year.

Happy, me? <grin>

Car? What car?


Almost four months down the line, we still don’t have the car we won. I’ll
put up a full timeline of the ridiculous rigmarole once we actually have it.
For now, all we know is that Toyota failed to send Fuji the invoice for the car
in mid-September. Fuji only cut cheques twice a month, and the next run is at the
end of this week. So, supposedly, Toyota will have the money for the car at some
point next week, and will then be able to hand the car over to us. By that point
we will have had the car insured for a month, at a cost of £60. Seeing as we only
want to sell the damn thing as soon as we get it, we are highly unchuffed
with the whole situation.

MCSD ahoy!

To my surprise, Microsoft send me a letter saying that I am now an MCSD
(Microsoft Certified Solution Developer) a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised
because I had only sat three of the four necessary exams. (I passed VB Desktop &
Distributed earlier in September.) It turns out, though, that
some of the exams I sat about two years ago (WSA I & II) were still valid, and counted
towards my qualification.

Unfortunately, these exams were retired three days after I got the letter.

Fortunately, Microsoft give you six months grace to sit the necessary further
exams to bring the qualification properly up to date. I’ve got myself booked in
for the dreaded 70-100 exam next Monday. Fingers crossed.


The Peat Inn

After a hard afternoon of spectacularly poor golf on a waterlogged course, there are few things better than a hot shower, a change of clothes, and a cold beer in the clubhouse. One of these better things is having dinner reservations immediately afterwards at The Peat Inn just outside St. Andrews in Fife. (Being able to have both is a distinct bonus, though. I’m sure the layers of caked-on mud would be a distraction to the other diners.)

Having studied at St. Andrews in the early nineties, my darling munchkin wife and I have known about the Peat Inn for a long time. It was always a top choice for graduation lunches and dinners and other fancy occasions, especially when you could get your parents to pick up the bill. Since then, we’ve had it recommended to us by friends, seen it glowingly reviewed in any number of publications, and time and time again we’ve said to each other “we must eat there some time.”

What we found when we dined there two weekends ago measured up to our expectations in every way. When you walk in the door, you find yourself in a small farmhouse style sitting room with comfy couches, heavy wooden tables and sideboards, and a roaring log fire. Even if I hadn’t been hungry already, I’m sure that the smells of food and woodsmoke would have lit the touch paper of my appetite. The Maitre d’ took our drinks orders (their gin and tonic was pretty good, but a little watery from too much ice), and left us to relax with the menus for a while.

Before we ordered, we were treated to a complimentary slice of onion quiche. Yes, I know quiche was supposed to have died at the end of the eighties, but if it’s all as good as this, I have no objections to it making a comeback. Its crust and base were both nicely firm, and the body was velvety smooth with slivers of sweet onion that fell apart in my mouth. It was a slice of “real food” done properly–not a fancy dish that looks good on paper but disappoints on the plate, and that sums up the Peat Inn entirely. The menu is full of wholesome dishes that wouldn’t look out of place on the blackboard of daily specials in a country pub.

Our table was in one of three dining areas, each holding about four tables, and isolated from each other to make the restaurant seem smaller and more intimate. The tables were immaculately laid with fine silverware and Wedgwood china. The wine we had ordered (a half bottle of mature and smoky 1989 Louis Jadot Volnay) was placed on the sideboard next to our table already decanted, with the bottle lined up aside it. Award-winning chef David Wilson is a wine connoisseur, and he insists on all red wines being decanted as near as possible to their storage place, and as soon as they are taken off the rack. My taste buds aren’t sophisticated enough to notice the difference, but I’ll take the advice of the experts on this one.

My starter was a julienne of pigeon breast on spiced pork (£8.50). I had come off the golf course feeling ravenous (and craving steak), so my choices were influenced by a desire for meat, and lots of it. The pigeon breast was tender and gamy. The spiced pork was flavoured only delicately, and a touch on the dry side, but that just allowed it to soak up the rich jus with more gusto. A few large flageolet beans, softened to perfection, were mixed in with the pork, and provided just the right amount of vegetable matter.

For my main course I had chosen a cassoulet of pork, lamb and duck with flageolet beans (£16.00). (Perhaps you see a trend developing here…when my body wants meat, it wants MEAT.) I have to say that I was a little disappointed to find the dish a bit more like a soup than a casserole. It was filled with plenty of chunks of lamb, cubes of ham, slices of home made pork sausage and an entire leg of duck, but in my mind I had been hopping for a thicker, richer ragout. Don’t get me wrong–the casserole juices were fantastic, and I didn’t leave a single drop on my plate. And although casseroled, the flavour of each meat (and the beans) was intact. Hearty and filling, I came away from this part of the meal with my meat cravings satisfied, and my hunger stopped dead in its tracks. Which left dessert to be savoured rather than devoured!

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that banana and coconut is the classic dessert combination for the decade. Variations seem to pop up in every restaurant we visit these days, and every time I try one I am delighted anew. This time it was caramelised banana on banana cake, with coconut ice cream (£6.50). The slices of banana glistened and dripped with barely liquid caramel, and were packed on top of the round slice of banana cake. The cake was moist and just savoury enough to stop the ensemble from being cloying. Chunks of coconut were easily identifiable in the only just solid ice cream. Taken all together, they made a delicious mouthful.

A nice touch comes with coffee or tea after dessert. Beside your bowl of brown and white sugarlumps, you two also get a tiny silver dish with a pair of tiny silver tongs, and inside it are tiny little tablets of sweetener. Cute, but hasn’t your diet not just been wrecked already by the mounds of food? On the other hand, if you’re on a diet, then surely you won’t mind your companion tucking into your share of the delicate petits fours, will you? It would be a shame to put those lemon tartlets, chocolates, and chunks of melt-in-the-mouth fudge to waste….

Probably the only down side to the Peat Inn is the fact that it is at least a few miles away from anywhere you’re likely to be staying, so you may have to give up wine with your meal. Since 1987 they do have rooms (which look stunningly luxurious on their brochure), but at £145 for a double or twin suite, you may find them a little expensive.

In conclusion, then, I can heartily recommend the Peat Inn. Its reputation for fine food is richly deserved, and the country-style ambience matches the menu perfectly. My only regret is that we hadn’t visited it until now.

Barenaked Ladies – Maroon

This morning, fresh out of the shower, I heard an ad on the radio for Maroon, the new album by the Barenaked Ladies, and I just had to run straight out and buy it. After I’d put on some clothes, of course.

I first heard of the Barenaked Ladies (five guys, in case you’ve never heard of them) in 1992, when I was sharing a student flat with Paul Stefiszyn, who was from Canada (drop me a line if you’re listening, Paul!). They had just released their first album Gordon to enormous critical and popular acclaim on the other side of the Atlantic. It didn?t make much of a splash over here, though. And despite turning out a string of clever, catchy pop tunes, it wasn’t until their album Stunt (1998) that they really made it big in Britain as well. “One Week” was the hit single from that album, a fast tune with rapped lyrics and a bouncy chorus. It’s perhaps not completely typical of the BNLs’ musical style, but the lyrics are unmistakably theirs, a blend of the humorous, melancholy and insightful:

“How can I help it if I think you’re funny when you’re mad
Trying hard not to smile though I feel bad
I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral
Can’t understand what I mean? You soon will”

(from “One Week”)

Maroon picks up where Stunt left off. The first five songs are upbeat, infectious tunes that almost define the word “pop.” The beats are essentially simple (though Tyler Stewart on drums throws in plenty of interesting variations if you pay closer attention) and easy to tap your toes along to. The melodies are easy on the ear and sticky on the brain: even on a first listen you?ll be humming along to the choruses before each song is out. The lyrics are mostly lightweight, but written with a perfect ear for rhythm, pacing and singability:

“If you scream in your sleep, or collapse in a heap,
and spontaneously weep, then you know you’re in deep”

(from “Go Home”)

With deceptive ease, all of these elements come together in a series of neat 4-minute packages. The first single from the album, “Pinch Me,” is the third track, and is probably the most commercial of these first five songs. “Falling for the First Time” is my current personal favourite, though. It has a mesmerizing chorus to it that speaks of challenges suffered and overcome:

“Anyone perfect must be lying, anything easy has its cost
Anyone plain can be lovely, anyone loved can be lost
What if I lost my direction? What if I lost my sense of time?
What if I nursed this infection? Maybe the worst is behind”

(from “Falling for the First Time”)

In the second half (well, more like the second two thirds), the boys wander into styles that are reminiscent of their earlier work. The lyrics become less generic, more cynical, and start to work in a story-telling fashion: “Sell, sell, sell” is about fame, the media, and the movie business; “Off the Hook” is a cynical look at one partner constantly forgiving the other in one-sided relationships; and “Tonight is the night I fell asleep at the wheel” sort of speaks for itself. The tunes are a little more downbeat and sometimes dirgeful (“Tonight is the night…” would work well as a funeral march–I suspect this is intentional). Generally, they are a bit more difficult to get to grips with. I have no doubt, though, that they will grow on me like juicy grapes on the vine, ripening with age.

The album is produced by Don Was, master of the clever pop track (remember the unbearably catchy “Walk the Dinosaur” from the eighties? That was him. The album What Up, Dog? is an oft-overlooked classic). On previous albums the Barenaked Ladies have already proved themselves to be capable (co-) producers in their own right, and Was seems mostly content to let the BNL sound and colour speak for itself. His unique presence is felt most strongly in “Baby Seat,” with its basic beat and Hammond organ whirling away in the background. There are a few other tracks that have a slightly country feel to them, which could also be put down to his influence.

Maroon is more polished than Stunt, but has less of an edge to it. I feel this is a loss, because a lot of the Barenaked Ladies? appeal lies in their playful approach to their music and lyrics. Even on a bad day, though, the BNLs can knock out better tunes than 95% of the artists in the top forty. Maroon may be too smooth to be perfect, but it is nowhere short of excellent.

The Grill Room at the Sheraton

Along with the Atrium, the Grill Room at the Sheraton Grand Hotel is one of only two restaurants in Edinburgh with three AA rosettes. After hearing some excellent recommendations, it’s been on my list of “must visit” places for a while now. Yesterday, to celebrate a certain special occasion (whose details I’m not at liberty to discuss…yet), my darling cutie wife and I gathered our appetites and set off in the direction of Lothian Road.

The setting is a little unusual. The Sheraton has two restaurants, the Terrace and the Grill Room. The Terrace looks out over the plaza in front of the hotel, and the Grill Room has windows that look out over the Terrace. (Even further inside is the Lobby bar, where you can go for a drink before your meal. It’s not cheap, but they do mix an utterly ravishing long vodka.) The decor is plush, with deeply sculpted ceilings, and walls inlaid with wood panelling and smoked mirrors. Original oil paintings depict scenes of country life: lots of dogs, and hunters stalking game on the wind-swept hills of Bonnie Scotland. (But in a tasteful way. Honest.) You are enveloped in an unmistakable air of luxury, but at the same time it didn’t feel too posh or highbrow. I was wearing my standard uniform of chinos, polo shirt and a light sweater, and this felt about right. Some of the other diners were wearing sport coats and open-necked shirts, but I didn’t think the atmosphere necessarily called for the formality of a jacket and tie.

The Menu Saison (fixed-price menu: £26 for two courses, £29 for three) is displayed prominently outside the restaurant, and features some splendid-sounding dishes, like smoked salmon with blinis, crème fraiche and chives; and tenderloin of venison, root vegetables, dauphinoise potato and balsamic jus. But it’s only when you sit down at your table that your waiter brings you the à la carte menu–and what a menu it is! For a restaurant of this style, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large selection: it opens with ten appetizers and four soups, and then proceeds to shower you with a selection of twelve entrées, three of which are vegetarian. And that’s excluding the grilled sirloin and fillet steaks, which warrant a section all of their own.

The wine list is varied but restrained, and interestingly also features a separate supplement for wines served by the glass. A beautifully laid out brochure gives full descriptions of about fifteen whites and reds from all over the world, and makes recommendations on which wine is likely to go with what type of dish–a very useful feature for someone like myself who can narrow his taste down to a grape, but then chooses by whether the label looks nice. The idea behind the by-the-glass list is that if you’re dining on your own, you don’t have to order a whole bottle, or to just allow you to enjoy a greater variety of wines with your meal.

This tactic allowed me to enjoy a smoky Macon Lugny white (£4.75 per glass) with the complimentary amuse bouche (witch flounder with a julienne of carrot and courgette in red pepper oil) and my first course of langoustine tail with wild mushrooms and scallops feuillantine, drizzled with langoustine butter (£12). The langoustine tails were exquisite bites of concentrated shellfish flavours, and they went very well with the earthiness of the mushrooms–surf ‘n’ turf with a vegetarian twist. (Seafood is fruits de mer in French. So they’re fruit, and thus okay for vegetarians, n’est-ce pas?)

Choosing a main course was difficult, the menu being casually littered with things like whole grilled Scottish lobster served in its shell with vierge sauce, and roast lamb fillet with courgettes, tomatoes and olive and truffle sauce. In the end I went for home smoked and roasted Gressingham duck breast and confit leg with pickled ginger beurre blanc (£21), and didn’t regret it at all. The leg was crispy on the outside, and falling-apart tender within its salty crust. The breast was cooked pink and sliced thick enough to be perfect for swirling and daubing in the sauce. The pickled ginger flavour came through in the form of a Chinese twang: subtle, but enough to completely transform a traditional jus. The vegetables that came with it were asparagus, and a healthy pile of fresh garden peas and tiny cubes of potato and carrot. A single glass of Torres Gran Coronas (£4.75) formed a perfect rich, smoky accompaniment.

My wife, who had chosen a more moderate selection of dishes from the Menu Saison, was full up by this point, but I was only just getting started! I was forced to polish off her “pressert” (a surprisingly light and palette-cleansing chocolate sorbet) as well as my own. And then I just had to try the raspberry and strawberry millefeuille with Chiboust cream and raspberry coulis (£6.50). This arrived on a plate with the coulis arranged in geometric patterns, outlined by thin chocolate borders. The millefeuille itself was a towering inferno of fresh berries and crispy pastry slices supported by clumps of the thickest, richest vanilla custard you can imagine. The strawberries were juicy, and the raspberries were tart. A bite of both, slathered with the Chiboust was like summer itself exploding in my mouth.

So does the Grill Room live up to its reputation? I certainly think so. The setting is marvellous, and the food is prepared to a very high standard. It’s unquestionably one of Edinburgh’s top restaurants, and after yesterday evening I can recommend it highly, and without hesitation.

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.