Reviewed July 2011
YOU can’t buck the law of supply and demand. There has been an explosion of new restaurants down in Leith, with the opening of Mithas, on Dock Place, the latest arrival in an increasingly crowded culinary ghetto where heavyweight restaurants are now scrapping hard for trade.
From the trio of Michelin-starred superstars to some of the best gastro-pubs in Scotland, just about every manner of restaurant is down by the docks, with the result that the area is heaving at weekends, with virtually every table taken.
But as every Edinburgh restaurateur knows, a happy life isn’t when every cover is taken on a sunny Saturday evening in the middle of the Festival, but when you can break even on a wet Wednesday lunchtime in February. It is this that has informed the decision of Cafe Fish to up sticks and move across the city from Leith to Stockbridge. Situated up by the banana flats at the outer limits of Leith restaurantland, Cafe Fish was more than a ten-minute walk from the lunch-trade honey pot that is the Scottish Government building at Victoria Quay, and while the weekends looked after themselves the downtimes were too down for comfort.
There was much that worked about Cafe Fish in Leith. The bright, airy building created a good atmosphere, but there were also plenty of attributes that were transportable: over the two years since it opened up in Leith, the place had built up a substantial caucus of committed customers, and there have been gradual but unmistakeable improvements in the kitchen and on the wine list. Most of all, the passion of Richard Muir’s family-run restaurant remained a portable asset. Still, the decision to move to Stockbridge is an interesting one. There are no fish restaurants in what is a very wealthy area, but there are at least a dozen restaurants within a ten-minute walk. The North West Circus Place site is right on the main drag, with plenty of scope for passing trade – yet it is also where Edinburgh’s first Italian family, the Continis, tried and failed to establish Zanzero.
The space that Cafe Fish has moved into was once a bank, and it retains that bygone opulence, with fine cornicing and intricate marbling on the floor. Muir has given the place a six-figure overhaul, getting rid of the mezzanine floor and bringing in a matt chrome bar to anchor the whole space. It works too: it was always a bright, relaxing room, but the changes have added a contemporary edge that clearly differentiates from its previous incarnations.
All of which is very interesting, but what about the food? When I first visited, two years ago, the restaurant was clearly still a work in progress, but a lot of maturing has gone on in the interim. The result is a large menu and food that is produced with enormous self-confidence and no little elan. Throw in prices that are resolutely reasonable, and you have a potent mix that should ensure those quiet Tuesday lunchtimes in Leith are a thing of the past.
We started off with a couple of pretty simple offerings, with Tim opting for pickled Orkney herring with dill grain mustard and creme fraiche on sourdough toast, while I chose plaice goujons with soy dipping sauce. Both were virtually flawless. My half-dozen strips of breaded plaice were perfectly cooked and lent a welcome kick by a nicely tart soy sauce, but it was Tim’s starter that really stole the show. Pickled herring can bring to mind white, flaccid lab specimens in a jar, but this was a fantastically subtle and beautifully presented melange served atop two thin slices of sourdough toast that tasted like it had come from the nearby branch of Herbie’s deli (this is a good thing). While a student in Edinburgh for the best part of a decade, Tim worked as a waiter in half the restaurants in town. He has tried countless fishy starters, but reckoned that this competes with any of them – but would have been even better had the bread not been toasted.
Our main courses were equally impressive, with Tim’s battered fish and chips with crushed (ie: mushy) peas and tartar sauce as near to spot-on as makes no difference. I chose the Goan monkfish and king prawn curry, which the waiter described as “about a five or a six on the hotness scale”. This butter chicken boy would say it was more like an eight. Yet once my palate had adjusted to the heat, I quickly began to appreciate that this was a fine dish in which the large helping of monkfish was unusually tender and delicate, while the thick sauce had a lovely creamy texture.
My experience is that fish restaurants often produce particularly good puddings, and this was no exception. Tim’s white chocolate and espresso cheesecake with hazelnut anglaise was a huge calorific slab streaked through with toffee and with a commendably dry base. On top, rather than the gravelly texture you often get with mascarpone, it was silky, almost like creme brÃuee. It certainly disappeared quickly, as did my very satisfactory summer fruit crumble with vanilla ice-cream.
With a particularly more-ish bottle of viognier that came in at under £20, we ate off the Ã la carte menu and left with a bill for £60, which included a decent thank-you for some slick service. On the next-door table was Michelin-starred chef Tony Borthwick, who was clearly enjoying his lunch. And, best of all, on a Monday lunchtime before the Festival, the place was full. Muir had better get used to that.
Cafe Fish, 15 North West Circus Place, Edinburgh (0131-225 4431,www.cafefish.net)
Bill please: Starters £5-£11, Main courses £11-£19, Puddings £5-£8, Cheese £9 Two-course set menu £22