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High-flying low points

Review published on 30/10/2008 © Sunday Herald

Edinburgh’s Apex International hotel took over a joyless, Stalinist concrete building that was once part of Heriot-Watt University. Anywhere else, this real estate would not have been an attractive proposition, but its location in the Grassmarket, under the shadow of the castle, must have persuaded Apex to give the building a face lift.

Not enough of a facelift, though. The Apex remains a rather joyless place with hard, echoing brutalist ground and mezzanine floors supporting upper levels with claustrophobically low ceilings. It's only when you get to the fifth floor, to the Heights restaurant, that you get a sense of space and the potential for a very fine view of the castle.

I say "potential" advisably. The Heights has the stark overhead lighting you'd expect in a university canteen, the sort of light you want if you're down on your hands and knees hunting for a lost contact lens.

Candles just can't compete, and at night, neither can the view. So if you're looking for a romantic aspect of the castle all lit up at night, forget it. All you'll see is a vague outline and the reflections of the dining room behind you. To get the most from its situation, the Apex needs to copy Harvey Nichols and get kitted out with "intelligent" lighting that adjusts itself to the level of light outside.

Thinking of the Heights, that school report comment "shows promise" comes to mind. The food is much better than you'd expect from this mid-range chain hotel, but then the price level (starters £9-£13 main courses £16-£21) is steep. The cooking has some very commendable qualities. The treatment of meat and fish is technically spot-on and the kitchen shows assuredness with sauces. There is evidence of good sourcing. The cheeseboard, supplied by the impeccable Clarks, features marvellous artisan cheeses, like Loch Arthur cheddar from Dumfriesshire and West Lawrenceton Milk from Moray. Star appearances include Dornoch lamb and Oban scallops.

But there is a dated quality to the food, flashbacks to nouvelle cuisine even, when chefs thought it was smart to serve kindergarten vegetables and decorative asparagus spears, and sous chefs spent hours turning produce into identical shapes. We savoured a juicy pink saddle of the excellent Dornoch lamb in a subtle olive jus with a thin pea puree, but the clutter of baby carrots (baby carrots in October? ) and undercooked potato batons was a waste of space. Though the kitchen sources local, or at least Scottish, it doesn't seem to get the seasonality message. Why serve asparagus - which can only be imported from Peru at this time of year - and wild garlic soup? Ransoms (wild garlic) you'll find strolling through our woods in May but chilled into oblivion come winter.

The best dish of the night was a briskly seared fillet of black bream served on a really good fennel risotto with segments of pink grapefruit and grapefruit oil providing a foil to the oiliness of the fish and the heaviness of the rice. Vermicelli of deep fried fennel added texture, but not a lot else. Free-range chicken worked well, having been given the confit treatment with goose fat then formed into a terrine with pickled walnuts, although the chicken might have shone more if it hadn't been teamed up with something so vinegary.

Galloway goat's cheese (made into a likeable mousse) and grilled heather honey pear was more of a dessert in its conception than a plausible starter as presented. Serving it on a brioche that tasted as though it contained vanilla flavouring tilted it too far into the sweet zone.

A hot raspberry soufflé , served with fragrant honeycomb ice cream, was too small, squashed into a small ramekin rather than the more generous size designed for this purpose, so there wasn't enough puffy centre in relation to crust. I must stop ordering lemon tart in the absence of prior information suggesting that the pastry chef can get the base dry and crumbly. Here was another soggy, floppy job - although a fresh, zippy mascarpone sorbet offered some compensation.

For all its aspirations, the Heights feels like an operation that's half thought through. The final puzzle is the drastically short, yet seriously overpriced wine list. Shows promise, yes, but let's add "could do better".

© The Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

High-flying low points

Review published on 30/10/2008 © Sunday Herald

Edinburgh’s Apex International hotel took over a joyless, Stalinist concrete building that was once part of Heriot-Watt University. Anywhere else, this real estate would not have been an attractive proposition, but its location in the Grassmarket, under the shadow of the castle, must have persuaded Apex to give the building a face lift.

Not enough of a facelift, though. The Apex remains a rather joyless place with hard, echoing brutalist ground and mezzanine floors supporting upper levels with claustrophobically low ceilings. It's only when you get to the fifth floor, to the Heights restaurant, that you get a sense of space and the potential for a very fine view of the castle.

I say "potential" advisably. The Heights has the stark overhead lighting you'd expect in a university canteen, the sort of light you want if you're down on your hands and knees hunting for a lost contact lens.

Candles just can't compete, and at night, neither can the view. So if you're looking for a romantic aspect of the castle all lit up at night, forget it. All you'll see is a vague outline and the reflections of the dining room behind you. To get the most from its situation, the Apex needs to copy Harvey Nichols and get kitted out with "intelligent" lighting that adjusts itself to the level of light outside.

Thinking of the Heights, that school report comment "shows promise" comes to mind. The food is much better than you'd expect from this mid-range chain hotel, but then the price level (starters £9-£13 main courses £16-£21) is steep. The cooking has some very commendable qualities. The treatment of meat and fish is technically spot-on and the kitchen shows assuredness with sauces. There is evidence of good sourcing. The cheeseboard, supplied by the impeccable Clarks, features marvellous artisan cheeses, like Loch Arthur cheddar from Dumfriesshire and West Lawrenceton Milk from Moray. Star appearances include Dornoch lamb and Oban scallops.

But there is a dated quality to the food, flashbacks to nouvelle cuisine even, when chefs thought it was smart to serve kindergarten vegetables and decorative asparagus spears, and sous chefs spent hours turning produce into identical shapes. We savoured a juicy pink saddle of the excellent Dornoch lamb in a subtle olive jus with a thin pea puree, but the clutter of baby carrots (baby carrots in October? ) and undercooked potato batons was a waste of space. Though the kitchen sources local, or at least Scottish, it doesn't seem to get the seasonality message. Why serve asparagus - which can only be imported from Peru at this time of year - and wild garlic soup? Ransoms (wild garlic) you'll find strolling through our woods in May but chilled into oblivion come winter.

The best dish of the night was a briskly seared fillet of black bream served on a really good fennel risotto with segments of pink grapefruit and grapefruit oil providing a foil to the oiliness of the fish and the heaviness of the rice. Vermicelli of deep fried fennel added texture, but not a lot else. Free-range chicken worked well, having been given the confit treatment with goose fat then formed into a terrine with pickled walnuts, although the chicken might have shone more if it hadn't been teamed up with something so vinegary.

Galloway goat's cheese (made into a likeable mousse) and grilled heather honey pear was more of a dessert in its conception than a plausible starter as presented. Serving it on a brioche that tasted as though it contained vanilla flavouring tilted it too far into the sweet zone.

A hot raspberry soufflé , served with fragrant honeycomb ice cream, was too small, squashed into a small ramekin rather than the more generous size designed for this purpose, so there wasn't enough puffy centre in relation to crust. I must stop ordering lemon tart in the absence of prior information suggesting that the pastry chef can get the base dry and crumbly. Here was another soggy, floppy job - although a fresh, zippy mascarpone sorbet offered some compensation.

For all its aspirations, the Heights feels like an operation that's half thought through. The final puzzle is the drastically short, yet seriously overpriced wine list. Shows promise, yes, but let's add "could do better".

© The Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

Review published on © Sunday Herald

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