IT’S bizarre. You wait years for a new, good, cheap fish restaurant to come along and then, all of a sudden, four arrive at the same time.
Hot on the heels of the excellent Waterfront in Oban, the peerless Seafood Cafe at Loch Leven and the runaway success that is Crabshakk in Glasgow, Edinburgh’s newest addition opened recently in Leith and is going down a storm with the locals.
Cafe Fish is the handiwork of chef Richard Muir, who has returned to the city of his birth after working for Gary Rhodes and then setting up the successful Carmelite Hotel in Aberdeen. His chosen venue is the former Vintage Bar in Henderson Street, the Leith road with more Michelin stars than any other in Scotland.
The new establishment is around the corner from Restaurant Martin Wishart, sandwiched between the Plumed Horse and the Vintners Rooms and overshadowed by a couple of grotty tenement buildings. It is also, happily, little more than 100 yards from the Roseleaf, one of Leith’s best bars.
Muir’s vision is a lively, busy fish restaurant that serves locally sourced produce at prices that aren’t exclusive, and the space is set up to reflect those aims. It’s unashamedly modern, the big airy space reached via a revolving door. Once inside, you are struck by the brushed metal counters and tables, wooden floors and a mix of whitewashed and stone walls, not to mention the open kitchen. With huge picture windows along one wall, Velux windows in the roof and a dizzying amount of lights pointing in seemingly random directions, the placed is bathed in light
With its bare walls and high ceilings, it can also get very, very noisy. This might be a bad thing if you were out for a romantic tte–tte, but it’s not so loud that you can’t hear yourself speak or think. Besides,
suspect that the ambience fits in neatly with Muir’s desire to bring a bustling energy to the place. In this he has certainly succeeded; Cafe Fish is undeniably a dynamic urban environment.
If the atmosphere is spot-on, what of the food? Muir brought with him two female chefs, Virginae Dumon and India Innes, and both can be seen charging around the kitchen at the far end of the restaurant. And judging from the results of their labours, they both clearly know their business.
The menu is small but interesting and changes markedly each day – always a good indicator that the freshest ingredients are in play. There’s also a definite attempt to mix the unadorned standards with some more off-beat options, especially using spices in the way that’s commonplace when working with fish in African cuisine.
That said, we both started off with pretty conventional starters, Alice plumping for the fish soup while I went for the black pudding with goat’s cheese and caramelised onions. Both turned out to be winners, with Alice’s fish soup a nicely creamy, pink concoction studded with white fish, while my Stornoway black pudding was a smooth, moist example that went perfectly with the cheese and sweet onions.
We were joined for the main course by our tardy friend Charlie, who had radioed in his choice of mackerel. I chose the lemon sole and Alice the roast spiced cod with olive oil mash, salsa and crme frache. All three were good, with my simply poached lemon sole being the pick of the bunch.
Charlie’s seared and heavily spiced mackerel was by far the most interesting, though; the fish having been cooked almost dry and proving hotter than any fish you’ll ever find outside of an Indian restaurant. It was a treatment that found favour with our latecomer, who wouldn’t hesitate to order it again.
Much the same went for Alice, whose chunky fillet of spiced cod was basted with a spicy crust and came with a slightly spiced ratatouille and new potatoes. Although the subtle flavours of the fish were in constant danger of being overwhelmed, the chefs had stayed on the right side of the line in this well-conceived dish. Once again, the verdict was a positive one.
My experience is that pudding in fish restaurants is barely worth bothering about, but in the interests of scientific research Charlie and I waded in. My chocolate tart was good, but definitely of the standard-issue variety, but once again Charlie went for the off-beat option and struck gold. His rum-soaked, seared pineapple compote with vanilla ice-cream didn’t sound remotely alluring, but turned out to be a winner – mainly because the highly interesting mushed pineapple was unrecognisable as such, though the rum was easy to spot.
And what of the damage? Muir sets out “to explode the myth that you have to spend 50 per head for a plate of fish and a glass or two of wine”, and with two courses for 19 and three for 23, he certainly succeeds in doing that. Although I’d describe it as decent value rather than cheap.
Cafe Fish is definitely a welcome addition to Edinburgh’s restaurant scene and one I’ll be returning to in the near future. In fact, with the exception of a faintly acidic bottle of Viognier, there were no black marks against the place. The service is friendly and efficient, the food is good, the prices are sensible and even the loos are pristine. But more than that, the informal environment and buzzing atmosphere will ensure that Cafe Fish will become the success that the prodigal Muir is seeking.
Cafe Fish, 60 Henderson Street, Leith, Edinburgh (0131-538 6131, www.cafefish.net)
Out of pocket Two-course dinner £19
Three-course dinner 23