This is a brilliant kitchen...
There’s a thing about sequels. Books, films, holidays to the same place; none are as good as the original. (This holds true even in the case of The Godfather, despite what some bloke on social media claims.)
With restaurants, it’s different. A second location gives a talented chef space to experiment, design a less formal experience, and let the staff they’ve trained have a starring turn themselves.
Just as the team from Aizle run Noto, The Little Chartroom has moved to bigger premises on Bonnington Road and turned its old Leith Walk venue into Eleanore. In both cases, the smaller off-shoots have more interesting menus, better cooking, and more ambience.
The big siblings aren’t bad places to eat, although my most recent meals in each had flaws, as the legendary film producer Sam Goldwyn would have it: “You start out with an earthquake and then work up to the climax.”
With the tasting menu at Aizle the first few courses were extraordinary before descending; the earthquake was very impressive, but the climactic moments never came.
The word ‘menu’ at Aizle is problematic. We are given an ingredients list printed on flower petal paper that changes daily. With limited help, the reader is tasked to deduce which ingredients form which dish after which a succession of quick-fire bites are sent out.
First comes marmite and koji sandwiched between a latticed batter sweet potato leaf. This displayed exemplary taste, texture and technique. To follow a cigar of curds – tangy as they should be, rolled in beetroot leather with flavours of rose. I could eat dozens. Then a mushroom and black truffle savoury cream, with great texture and finesse.
A cured trout dish was topped with daikon, but with the addition of a decent wine pairing details become hazy. That ingredients list comes in to play here.
There was certainly a fish of some kind, sweetcorn featured, unmemorable duck came and went, sweet dishes apparently included elderflower, strawberry, sorrel, chocolate and whisky. None lived up to that powerful start.
Aizle is plonked in the atrium of the Kimpton Charlotte Square Hotel. An atrium has many functions but being a restaurant is not one that comes highly recommended. There is that general soullessness which denotes a space filled with itinerate travellers, ceilings are too airy and (like the moon) the atmosphere too weak. The experience of diners not seated in the kitchen corridor with a broken lamp, like this reviewer, may have been markedly better.
Noto on the other hand, is everything that big sister isn’t. It cuts a stark presence on Thistle Street, with its severe black facade and stark white lettering. We step into a dark and stylish bar, and are shown to our table in a bright, spacious, minimalist room.
The walls are of the faintest pink with swooshing paintwork lines that are fainter still. Driftwood sculptures big enough to fill the room cushion the sound and diffuse the sunlight. It’s fabulously stylish, and definitely not the atrium of an up-market hotel chain.
The menu here (and there is one, helpfully) knocks it out of the park. Their signature dish is north sea crab served in the shell, the white meat lounging in warm butter. Sourdough helps soak up this obscene deliciousness. More, more! Bring me more crab! Then there is a truffle croquette, fried to perfection and dusted with shaved Corra Linn cheese. These are two exceptional dishes.
Chicken yakitori comes grilled on short wooden skewers brushed with pickled plum. We are invited to dunk them in a cured egg yolk and lick our lips. It’s a clever dish, but charring the chicken would add interest. A breaded and fried aubergine tonkatsu came with kimchi and pickled ginger.
This restaurant is interested in Asian techniques as well as flavours. The Med gets a showing too - along with wild halibut, cooked to perfection, comes a bowl of green beans with figs and coppa.
A note on deserts here, have one: The chocolate mousse with caramel, topped with Swiss meringue is delightful.
Down in Leith, Roberta Hall-McCarron is at an unenviable stage of her career. She’s been on telly, so she must be good. She’s had a phase involving a food truck on the Lothian Riviera, or Portobello beach as the locals insist on calling it. Now, in a move that Barack Obama might refer to as ‘the audacity of hope’, she has stepped into the old Martin Wishart Cook School. Sadly, the comparison ends there.
Like Aizle, The Little Chartroom starts strongly before falling off a cliff. Scallops are served in shell, with crispy pig’s ear. There is a superb venison carpaccio, soft as butter, offset with grains, black truffle and herbs. We eat some warm treacle bread and smile.
The advent of the mains, unfortunately, brought a duck with its own sausage and a lone carrot, smiling from the plate alongside a blob of pumpkin. The only thing saving this dish from an airport carvery mixed grill was the quenelle of soused red cabbage.
The halibut was a minute overcooked, which for a fish this noble and pricey is a waste. The pastry chef took a bunch of great flavours – malt chocolate, miso, yuzu, caramel, pecan – and made them taste less than the sum of their parts, to put it mildly. (To drown our sorrows, we nipped into Mistral, a fantastic new wine bar next door.)
To put it frankly, the experience was perplexing, we have had many good meals in the original and the kitchen was teeming with chefs on the night we ate – perhaps swapping notes on the grand reopening of Eleanore a few days later.
Serendipitously, our next booking was Eleanore’s opening night in the company, as whimsy would have it, of an actual Eleanor.
And how different it was. The cooking was sharp, the service all you could ask for with a vibe that makes you want to go back, quickly. The space is at once wine bar and restaurant, high tables, small plates, designed for sharing. and prices starting around £5.
As a foursome, we ordered straight down the line: that is, one of everything on the menu. There were oysters and a cured halibut brushed with the spiciest, citrusiest and most mouthnumbingest orange kosho. Falafel came with black garlic and sesame. The hash brown was a triumph, with XO sauce, Marie Rose sauce, hispi cabbage and brown shrimp. This is a dish that should become a fixture on the ever changing menu
Several other items were so good that we ordered seconds and thirds: A big old mushroom was introduced to lots of smoke before being served on a mound of wonderful celeriac, accompanied, unusually, by a skein of chat from the lovely staff.
Filled pumpkin pasta came with long pepper and sage, and once again (you know where this is going) we asked for more.
I’ll cut to the quick: This is a brilliant kitchen (on every level) and we loved it.
It’s great that accomplished chefs, and Edinburgh has many, wish to expand both their repertoire and the number of people enjoying the experience, everyone’s a winner. And whatever my criticism, all of the above deserve a visit from you. ■
38 Charlotte Square
0131 527 4747
47A Thistle Street
0131 241 8518
14 Bonnington Road
0131 556 6600
30/31 Albert Place
0131 600 0990
Eleanore exterior and Aizle’s Cigar of curds with beetroot