Hotel du Vin11 Bristo Place,
0845 365 4438
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Review published on 12/01/2009 © Sunday Herald
There is something wonderfully homely about eating in the new Hotel du Vin in Edinburgh.
While its sister establishment in Glasgow still offers a fair deal of what's known as "fine dining", the Edinburgh establishment seems to have dumped this genre entirely in favour of a cook's rather than a chef's menu.
Its heart lies firmly in the French cuisine bourgeoise - that's posh housewife cooking which embraces national favourites like salade frisée aux lardons, eggs Florentine, fish "en papillote" (in parchment paper) and Provençal "daube" or stew. There's an overlay of the newly fashionable rediscovered British classics like the second-world-war staple, faggots (offal and cheap meat cuts wrapped in caul fat) and beef olives, alongside traditional Scottish favourites like Atholl brose and clootie dumpling.
I love this sort of food. It feels like coming home and the bistro, which rekindles that old French brasserie atmosphere, albeit totally fake and made to look old from new, feels that way too. There is a long line of empty jeroboam and magnum bottles lit up with twinkling candles. The walls are varnished in a Belle Epoque brasserie mood and cluttered with retro miscellany. It's dangerously close to Café Rouge Franglais, but works because the basics - the furniture, the floor - eschew twee.
I found it hard to decide what to order since there was so much I fancied: smoked haddock cassoulet with Montgomery cheddar crust, steak haché with Albert Roux's lively picnic sauce, Bois Bourdain and Jerusalem artichoke soup with duck ragout.
With great difficulty we settled on mutton and barley broth and Mull cheddar soufflé for starters. The homespun broth was clear and still fresh with parsley and finely chopped, crunchy vegetables, but underpinned by the mutton flavour. The soufflé was surprising, like a savoury take on the French dessert, oeufs à la neige, where egg whites are poached then floated on a sauce of crème Anglaise custard. Here the whites had been whisked into one towering peak and came with a tiny copper cocotte of cheese sauce to form a little puddle around it. The sauce needed to be cheesier, richer and more viscous to partner the simple whipped albumen. That said, this was a fun dish, light and appetising, that just needed tweaking.
I was thrilled to find bones in my coq au vin. None of that hypocritical "this is not a once living thing you're eating" stuff with a prissy chicken breast standing in for the jointed bird. The chicken had good provenance too, no anonymous broiler bird here but a proper free-range one supplied by Linda Dick. It was straight out of Elizabeth David and went really well with that Alsace speciality, spaetzle - little fried pieces of pasta. The spaetzle tasted as though they were fried in butter and were beautifully crispy, a thoughtful and different accompaniment to a dish with lots of gravy.
How wonderful also to be served oxtail, still in whole slices, cartilage and fat still intact, rather than the usual meat scraped off and served separately in some fancy, cheffy form.
Oxtail is so cheap and so undervalued, and here it shone: that unique, savoury flavour; the unctuousness of the slightly gelatinous gravy it makes. Served with a creamy pommes purée, infused with mellow garlic, it was great. Give me that over a fillet steak any day. A side order of melting roasted organic root vegetables from Damhead struck just the right seasonal note.
The griotte cherry clafoutis and the pear tarte tatin might have made better choices, but I was intrigued to see a kitchen taking seriously classic puds that have unfortunate associations with 1970s pudding trolleys.
The profiteroles worked nicely; biscuity choux filled with a chilly vanilla ice cream just waiting to be anointed with a warm Valrhona chocolate sauce. The yeast dough for rum baba, however, was too coarse in texture and overly aerated to be suitably absorbent. The inclusion of Grand Marnier was not persuasive either, but a toasty hazelnut ice cream made it all much more than edible.
There's still some tinkering to be done at Hotel du Vin, but this is an opening that excites me. It represents the reintroduction of old, overlooked, yet still familiar favourites.
Perversely, that feels invigoratingly new.