The Beach House57 Bath Street, Portobello,
0131 657 2636
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
The prom queen
Review published on 05/07/2010 © Sunday Herald
We hit the promenade in Portobello on a properly hot day and it was a sight for sore eyes. The Forth estuary, which usually looks steely grey and glowering, was almost blue, the sands golden. Heavens, there were adults in bikinis, lounging on the beach and even bathing in the water!
This was the first time I have ever fully understood the recreational potential of Porty beachwise, that is. It looked uncannily like the grand beaches of Normandy, reminiscent of elegant resorts like Houlgate, Cabourg, Trouville and Deauville. The promenade was buzzy and thronged. Lots of immaculately coiffed elderly ladies out for a stroll, cyclists, toddlers on trikes, a parade of tattoos, yapping little dogs on leads, barefoot kids threading their way in and out, trying hard not to drop their cones you had all the elements of an urban passeggiata, an ever-changing procession of human life. Without this level of activity, a promenade feels dead and sad. Not Portobello, its very much alive.
Bohemian Portobello specialises in diversity. Its admirably active local community does a sterling job of opposing cloned, chain development and supporting projects that are individual and particular, and the Beach House Cafe is more evidence of this dynamism. The café occupies a prime corner of the prom. There is nothing revolutionary about whats on offer, which makes it democratic and accessible to all. To be honest, you could probably run a totally cynical, seedy seaside greasy spoon here and still make money, but the Beach House has evidently put considerable effort into being a lot, lot better than that.
The integrity begins with ingredients. The bread, for instance, is made by one of Edinburghs artisan bakers, so when you have a sandwich you arent eating Euro-pap. Milk and eggs are organic. Chicken is free-range. Meat comes from Portobellos celebrated Findlays butcher, cheese from the impeccable Iain Mellis. Coffee is Fairtrade. There is a fatwa on rainforest-deleting palm oil. The Beach House gives you quality, but the prices are entirely reasonable. The operation is less about cooking than it is about intelligent, thoughtful sourcing. The one weak note is the ice cream, a brand that I dont rate. Whats the point of making peach ice cream in Aberdeenshire?
We went to the Beach House for cake and ended up staying for lunch. There was a good big bowl of yogurty pea soup which came with excellent, crusty white bread and a ball of butter. The tuna sandwich was about as far from those flabby, flannel-like things in packs that you could get. Here was fresh granary bread with seaweed baked through it, cut thick, oozing a generous amount of tuna mayonnaise spiked with slivers of red onion and flanked by a perky salad of ruby chard, rocket and lambs lettuce dusted with toasty sunflower seeds and pine kernels. And there was a ploughmans lunch, but not as we so often know it. No dusty, biscuity factory baguette. No plastic block cheddar and tin foil pack of butter. Instead, a substantial wedge of handmade, cloth-wrapped, unpasteurised milk cheddar came with more of the great white bread, the same fresh salad and a mellow, fruity, organic plum chutney.
It is impossible not to have your eye drawn to the cake selection, mainly furnished by local home bakers. It makes a wonderful sight, precarious stacks of crusty scones, glistening coffee cake studded with large pecans, Victoria sponge, classy bought-in fruit tarts and all. This line-up constitutes entrapment if you ask me. Once youve clocked it, theres no going back. So we didnt, polishing off a spicy, dumpling-moist carrot cake with buttercream that tasted as though it had rum in it, and a featherweight orange and almond cake, with a properly made cup of coffee and nicely served Darjeeling tea.
There are tables outside, and a sensible pile of blankets on hand to cover yourself up if it gets a bit parky, but inside its pretty cosy. I can see myself here come winter, cradling a steaming hot chocolate or supping a comforting soup. The Beach House is an attractive prospect, come rain or come shine.