The Leith Glutton
This place opened before Leith became a foodie haven
Restaurant Martin Wishart
54 The Shore, Edinburgh
0131 553 3557
Some things change, others don’t, and Martin Wishart manages both at the same time. There are new soft furnishings and cushions, even though covid has put a stop to linen tablecloths and napkins. The famous cheese trolley has, sadly, been wheeled elsewhere. But the cooking here remains sharp, delicate ingredients are allowed to shine, and the ambience is as casual smart as ever.
Martin Wishart has been doing this very well for over twenty years, yet there is no celeb chef bling on show, no pretension: just the best cooking in Edinburgh, consistently. Chefs who cook like this don’t need a TV persona; their food shines through.
The restaurant, with its discretely hued frontage on the Shore, has a complex relationship with Leith. Many Leithers can’t afford to eat there, even for a special occasion. Yet the restaurant arrived well before Leith became cool and has played a major role in cementing Leith as the foodie and trendy part of Edinburgh it now is.
There’s no accounting for the petty preconceptions some people have about their own city; there are still some Edinburgh residents for whom, sadly, the only acceptable reason for visiting Leith is for lunch at Martin’s explaining, perhaps, the waiting taxis willing to propel anxious couples back to the south side - lest a vagabond lurks at the end of Tolbooth Wynd.
This is a restaurant dearly loved by locals. For months, a sign on the door apologised - politely - for being closed. Social media was silent. Locals-in-the-know could see a worrying pile of unopened post behind the glass door. So when Martin Wishart re-opened in late August, a sigh of relief rippled across those who had feared the worst.
Re-opening has been a prompt for the kitchen to revisit the greatest hits of the first 21 years. The halibut ceviche with mango (and once served in a stemmed glass, before the #wewantplates meme) is back. Emmental soufflé – baked precisely for four minutes, eased from the ramekin, and grilled momentarily – has rarely been off the menu, and for good reason. It’s delicious, well executed, and doesn’t date. Martin’s signature amuse bouche, a beetroot macaron, vividly purple and stuffed with horseradish, whispers “I’m still here” over the worry of pandemic.
Yet there is great freshness in the menus too. The weekday lunch is less keenly priced than it used to be, but remains good value. Weekend tables are kept for those prepared to pay more. Those menus seem a little more expensive now, at £90 for a tasting menu and £75 for something closer to a la carte, although the choice is generally one of two options per course. This is a lot of money for food, but it is fairly priced for the quality and experience.
We ate our way through the vegetarian menu, more or less, with substitutions from the other side of the page. The amuse bouche were good, including a quenelle of rillettes, a haggis bon-bon, and artichoke velouté.
The latter was creamy and well seasoned, and the rillettes excellent. The bread is good, and comes with very decent whipped seaweed butter, tomato concassé, and tapenade – although I’d happily trade the three pots away for a slab of decent French butter.
Artichoke à la barigoule (it’s okay, I googled it too) was sharp, with a hint of lemon and carrots expertly diced to the size of small salt flakes. A thoroughly impressive September dish, retaining the fading memories of summer produce and Leith sunshine.
Sweetcorn rapidly followed. Fresh, juicy and somewhere between chowder and not chowder, which was excellently balanced with lime and chilli. Both dishes were very modern but completely at home here. The sweetcorn, based around a modest ingredient elevated beyond its station, was outstandingly good. It takes a confident kitchen to pull off a simple dish so well. Not a problem here.
The soufflé came next, to acclaim, and should have been followed by a pumpkin risotto. However we opted for the supplément – a very fair £10 – to share a grouse across two plates. Covid hasn’t prevented the theatre, with the bird precisely carved from a trolley at the table.
The game, nicely pink, had excellent flavour, served classically with diced potatoes, cabbage, bacon, and pan juices. No molecular gastronomy here, and none needed: just the silver boat of sauce Albert. Made from grating horseradish into bouillon which is then thickened with cream, eggs and mustard-spiced in vinegar, one of those Victorian flourishes overdue a comeback.
Dessert was superb: lemon meringue with yoghurt sorbet and a passionfruit cream, chosen over a chocolate crémeux that looked lovely but is better suited to those who prefer a heavier pudding.
Wines are interesting, and available by the glass. The wine flight was very well judged and wide-ranging, encompassing several continents. However the servings seemed a touch emptier than on previous visits. Given how central wine mark-ups are to a restaurant’s profitability, maybe this is necessarily the price of having to remove three tables to enable social distancing.
Martin Wishart’s is Edinburgh’s best offering by a country mile, holding its own with any in the UK. It’s the restaurant I’d choose over most others I’ve sampled in the city. We are blessed to have it in Leith, at least for those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it.
Best of the rest
Improbably on Great Junction Street, the pint-sized restaurant Aurora fights well above its weight, doing very good things and featuring some very sharp cooking. There is a thrusting confidence here from a young chef running his first business. Lunches at the weekend and excellent restaurant cooking by night: Menus from £15/£35.
Over on Restalrig Road, East Coast Cured are successfully expanding their offering beyond it’s own (delicious) charcuterie to a happy foodie hunting-ground for organic flours, milk, bread, cheese, butter and jars of delicious-looking things: Charcuterie from £4.
Many restaurants have tried their hand in this awkward space in Henderson Street and after some hiccups, the owners of Borough are making good on their vision for a hipster Scandi restaurant in Leith. They are back to full functionality after their (to-be-applauded) lockdown detour of takeaway fried chicken pop-ups: Lunch menus from £16.50.
Toast on the Shore manages morphs throughout the day: Viennoiserie and coffee at breakfast, cakes and sandwiches for lunch and trendy Wine bar at night: Glasses from £6.