The Dogs110 Hanover Street,
0131 220 1208
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Bite of excellence
Review published on 10/04/2008 © Sunday Herald
David Ramsden is one of Edinburghs quirkier restaurateurs.
When he had characterful (Fitz)henry in Leith, he displayed his wacky decorative style to great effect combining threadbare auction room antiques with contrasting rococo flourishes. Then he opened Rogue, near the conference centre, where he abandoned his own idiosyncratic style for a contemporary interior design look that almost managed to lend some personality to a bland, corporate space.
Now he has gone to The Dogs yes, we need that capital T and were back to the old Ramsden style. He has stripped back to the bare bones an old pub on the first floor above Hanover Street, and made it into what Edinburgh desperately needs, a gastro pub of the kind that has taken off in London, where the emphasis is on food, not decor. Ramsden evidently gets himself out of Scotland from time to time to recce what other people with fresh ideas are up to. Would that more restaurateurs took a leaf out of his book rather than perpetually drawing on their old, tired, parochial pool of experience.
Visually, the look is delightfully random. Old pubby tables and chairs sit cheek by jowl with frou-frou lamps, chandeliers and super-sized images of chummy canines. Its a brilliant riposte to the "see and be seen" style bars that clog up George Street, and it attracts a more interesting crowd.
The food at last! shows awareness of the local, seasonal zeitgeist that is driving many new openings down south. It shows an interest in using cheaper, but tasty, cuts of meat. The menu features breast of lamb, "skirt" steak (the French "onglet"), boiled salt beef, duck livers and ham hock. It elevates our native root veg and brassicas above clapped-out, air-freighted green beans. It goes to the effort of seeking out generally overlooked piscine species, not yet fished to extinction, such as mackerel and coley.
Tom Kitchin in Leith has pioneered this agenda in Scotland, but the exciting thing about The Dogs is that Ramsden is doing it at a budget level. Two of us had three courses, a bottle of wine and coffee, yet the bill sneaked in just over the £50 barrier. A starter chosen in the small portion size can cost as little as £2.50.
And because the place is not self-conscious and up its own backside like nearby style palaces, it is amiably relaxed and conducive to conversation. We lingered for almost three hours.
The soused mackerel, creamy-fleshed and ultra-fresh, its oiliness cut by baking in its vinegar-water brine, made a persuasive ambassador for this under-rated species. It was positively a delicacy. A mutton broth with trailing strands of full-flavoured meat, pearl barley and root vegetables was as comforting as anything your grandmother ever cooked up.
Poached coley sounded worryingly dull, but this is a firm-fleshed fish, with plenty of flavour to it, that comes away in generous flakes. Served on a kale colcannon with a lively green parsley sauce, it was a steal at £6.95. The sauce had been made in the British way, starting with a roux and adding milk.
The cooking influences here are all native to these shores. Chips, for instance, are fried in dripping, not oil. Brilliant. An intriguing risotto, made fromb barley rather than rice,and pungent with wild mushrooms and slowly-cooked garlic, was another big hit and summed up what you are getting at The Dogs, essentially home cooking served in a restaurant.
The phenomenal bargain of the evening just had to be a zesty, zingy lemon posset, accompanied by an admirably buttery, home-made shortbread biscuit, priced at £2.50.
It showed up a more amateurish marmalade bread-and-butter pudding, which was a little too dry, though commendably made with decent bread worth eating, as opposed to white sliced Europap.
There is one bone to pick with Ramsdens menu. It is a lovely idea to serve up a whole roast chicken for two, with all the trimmings. But when I checked, I learned that the birds in question were not free-range, which seems oddly reactionary, given the otherwise progressive tone of the establishment.
The Dogs is such good value to start with, customers could surely stretch to a couple more quid for a higher welfare bird without wincing.