Fun, messy food hits the spot
Now the place is open, everyone is going in. The new St James’ Quarter bustles. Note how the developers insist we call this a “retail-led quarter”, not a shopping centre. It may have shops and restaurants, but this is firmly a quarter. (We are not told where the other three are.) The appeal of the building is somewhat unclear, although perhaps us locals aren’t expected to appreciate the genius of her architects.
Anyhoo, we are here to talk about the serious business of gluttony, not the wisdom of the council planning department, and this quarter has some welcome options.
That said, Bonnie and Wild on the top floor is confusing. Getting in is unnecessarily hard. Two adjacent doors face us, one with airport-style queue ropes and one promising direct access to the mysterious quarter that lies beyond. After admiring the problem from afar, we walk confidently to the door.
Bouncers demand to know our purpose. It’s a food court, so we haven’t come to look at the pandas, have we? The magic phrase, it turns out, is ‘I’d like to have a look’. The door is swung open and we get to look round the fairly uninspiring food trucks neatly arranged by an accountant. Corporate can’t do hipster, no matter how hard it tries.
So in this quarter, seek your gluttony elsewhere. There are national chains – well chosen, mind – and local success stories. Pho is a London staple, centring its menu around the Vietnamese national dish of the same name. Before the main event, we start with summer rolls. Crisp vegetables are neatly julienned and parcelled in rice paper, then lightly steamed.
Like much Vietnamese food, the flavour comes from an extra layer of flavour added immediately before you bite in: in this case, it is the dipping sauce. Chilli, vinegar, and fish sauce form a trinity of goodness. These are really delicious. Sad not to try the crispy spring rolls, we move on to enormous steaming bowls of pho.
A basic pho has three phases. The base is simmered for hours – days even – in vats of water and calf bones, forming a clear stock. On order, thin strips of beef are cooked as the pho is returned to temperature. At the table, the happy diner adds last-minute flavourings from the plate.
There is mint, perilla, tiny enoki mushrooms, and sliced chillies. Gulp with a spoon, spill it down your shirt, and smack your lips with frenzied delight. We are transported to a long-remembered breakfast in Hanoi. Here in the quarter, this is fresh, healthy and filling. Well done all. Slurp and wipe.
Hanoi to Tokyo is usually a five hour flight, but not in this quarter. Two escalators down from Pho is a branch of Maki & Ramen, a real Edinburgh success story with six branches here and one in Glasgow. The sushi is authentic and certainly in the upper tier in Scotland. At the Fountainbridge mothership, they have Japanese fish like hamachi (yellowtail) and otoro (fatty tuna).
The St James outlet is more restrained but unagi, seared eel, is a favourite of mine and the chefs prepare it well. The rice is served at the right temperature and the fish is excellent quality. Sushi is a serious business, and this lot are doing it well. The ramen, steaming bowls of noodles, are as good as you will find in this country. The stock is flavoursome and clearly boiled for many hours. The noodles are made in-house, and well-cooked.
While few restaurants in Japan would serve both sushi and ramen in one establishment, we’ll overlook that due to the fact that it is utterly delicious. Like all sushi restaurants, a lot of small plates do rack up the bill, but you are paying for freshness and quality. A bowl of ramen, however, at £13, is a modest price for a meal that won’t leave anyone hungry.
Just as Maki and Ramen make Edinburgh proud, our Glaswegian friends are proud of Ox and Finch. It has been cooking modern hipster food for men with enviable beards before having a beard was enviable. Riding on that success, the team opened Ka-Pao near the Glasgow Botanical Gardens (I know, sweet they think they have one there) and have now pitched up in Edinburgh.
Their menu is, they say, ‘influenced by the cooking of South East Asia’. These influences rub off well. The menu is phenomenally exciting, and delivers every time. You can order snacks, small plates, big plates, sides. This is free-form dining rather than a structured menu and is designed to share.
Charred tomato and chilli dip arrives, searing with furious heat, with pork skins and crudités to dunk. The waiter warns it is on the spicy side, and it is. All the dishes here use chilli for flavour as well as heat. Someone somewhere has added great thoughtfulness to this dish.
The enormous open kitchen gets to work on our order. Corn ribs come first, slathered in salted coconut, shrimp and lime. This is fun, messy food and hits the spot. Crispy pork belly (with great flavour) nestles amongst sorrel and watercress leaves. The dish is brought together by calamansi, a Japanese citrus much prized for its aroma.
Then we get the fried chicken wings. No point pretending this is refined food. It’s just filthy good gluttony, aided and abetted by fish sauce caramel and pickled celery. I am still thinking about it a week later. A shaved carrot salad comes with brown shrimp, hazelnut and gooseberries. All a bit odd, but it works.
The only slightly sour note was a green curry of lamb with broad beans, peas, and banana chilli. The flavour was good but needed longer on the hob to cook off the sauce. We drank non-alcoholic juices, and the bill was less than £25 a head. Great food, great value. ■
Maki and Ramen 8/10
Crispy pork belly, sorrel, calamansi; Chicken wings, fish sauce caramel, pickled celery