The Leith Glutton
Something stirs on Henderson St
The Sly Fox: Instagram@slyfoxfood
t is easy to think a new lease of life started with the banana flats getting listed status, but Henderson Street has always been a road of surprising interest. North towards the Shore, the Whisky Society, the site now home to Borough and Heron in the old Raj, provide foodie delights. Mario’s Pasticceria has perked up the middle stretch Now the Great Junction Street end to the south is playing catch up. A trio of openings helps the shift from being not much more than the Lidl carpark exit. If this were New York, this half block would be re-named SoHen.
Most recently, Bittersweet has taken over the license from what used to be Steel Coulson. The Cioffi brothers bring impressive experience. Fabrizio founded The Old Poison Distillery in the Biscuit Factory in 2017, gaining instant cult status. As well as gin and rum – and who doesn’t make those these days – his Italian roots shine through, with a range of amaro, vermouth and aperitivo. Now younger brother Simone brings his bartending experience from Naples, via fifteen years on the London drinks scene. Like Neapolitan cafes, the menu weaves seamlessly between breakfast, lunch, cocktails, and dinner. Almost everything is made in house. Where products are bought in, they are well chosen: coffee, for example, is from Santu, a local firm with impeccable links to the Brazilian coffee industry
Bittersweet is well named. Bitterness is a flavour profile loved across Italy. Both drinks and vegetables with a bitter note are the life-blood of Italian taste, cutting through glass and plate alike. Fabrizio and Simone harness this to make an impressive range of cocktails. We start with a modern negroni, house-style. It comes with ice and theatre. Thankfully there is no Campari here, much as I love its faint cough-mixture overtones. The glass is short and wide. The house pre-mix is poured from a bottle with a roaring twenties label. A single ice-cube is cut from a block and bronze stamped. Then Simone whips out a small spray bottle and squirts something over drink. For a brief moment, I feared he was adding hand sanitiser, but no, a waft of orange mist hits the drink and dots the air. Drama yes, but delicious too. Like a good grapefruit, the drink had bitterness, but no harshness.
Further cocktails were equally impressive. One spritz had a clove base. The elder spritz – a gin-style creation distilled with elderberries not juniper – was served long over ice. It had notes of lemon, basil, and almonds with a peppery kick.
Food is good here, in a dirty way. We order crispy squares of fried pizza dough, served three on a plate filled with ragu, tomato, and ricotta. Leithers, you must get these in your life. They are delicious. All pizza must be fried from now on, friends, albeit without the batter – this is a classy establishment. Out came the Damn Ham, pesto, mozzarella and parma ham on very good bread. Potato croquettes were well-made and well-fried, as were the fish ones. The menu offers slightly larger plates of gnocchi, lasagne, grilled polenta, and sharing boards of meat and cheese. Small plates start at £2.50 and not much is more than £8. For several cocktails and several plates, the bill was £60 so it does add up. But Bittersweet has a lovely atmosphere, carried off well. Five years ago, this would be opening in Brunstfield but because we’ve reached 2022, it is all happening here in Leith.
, next door, offers a different vibe. Its 1950s americana facade, all tiles, neon, and red benches, brings a splash of ooomph to SoHen. Hipster points are deducted for not making their own pies, but this place isn’t playing those rules. All remaining points are deducted for serving everything with a side of beans (I realise some people are happy for sticky tomato sauce to turn their pie crust soggy). You can, of course, eschew beans. The humble pie is a market well served by Bayne’s, Greggs, and a host of bakeries across Scotland, but Chums is bringing its own slice of in-your-face fun to this space, quite literally as it happens. It’s all a bit lost on me, although the steady trade suggests I am the only one. Just remember, Chums means beans. Perfect for a quick working from home lunch.
Further along, The Sly Fox is a different beast. It isn’t a beast at all, given all the food is plant-based. Beasts are not welcome here, except the paying customers. But this is an unkind way of describing a bunch of the nicest and most right-on Gen Z’ers who flock here, much like flies to a raw steak. A chap walks in and asks for a table for one; it’s just himself and his conscience for lunch today. A couple studiously ignore each other over their shared meal. Number one loudly flicks the pages of a Dostoyevsky novel as if to say “Ukraine – I know you”. Number two flaunts a Macbook with multiple stickers: next to a peeling logo of the Liberty department store is a blunt invitation, in industrial language, on what to do with gender norms. Framed posters of famous Czech feminists line the walls, along with a small offering of soaps, raw energy balls, and handknits for sale. The level of woke here is utterly brilliant, with the added pleasure of knowing it would make several ruddy Tory MPs explode with rage. More of this, Leith, please; more of this.
People who like vegan food will find this the sort of thing they love. Since the arguments for more ethical eating are undeniable, don’t write this off as a vegan café. It’s a café that does great food, simples. The faux gras, based on lentils and mushrooms, is stunningly good. It comes with pickled pears and the grateful thanks of a flock of geese. It’s so popular, Chef K sells jars to go.
We swap out more bread for a crisp potato rosti and a steaming bowl of goulash, served with a beaming smile. The sauce is thick, well-seasoned, and has a good kick, although the soya was perhaps too soft; a denser beancurd may have worked better. Often vegan food works well when it shows off its natural ingredients, rather than substituting meat for fake meat. So it was with the seaweed arancini. They had great flavour and were precisely cooked, with a top-notch coleslaw dip, nestled on a salad of cured radish. Lunch for two, with two bottles of kombucha, came to just over £40. We’ll both be back for more. ■
The Sly Fox 7/10
Selection of montanara and potato croccee, below seaweed anancini