The Leith Glutton
In want of a good wine bar
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an up-and-coming neighbourhood must be in want of a good wine bar. Leith’s had its fair share of decent pubs for decades, and a wine pedigree stretching back centuries. For most of that time, the trade in Leith saw a one-way flow of wine up the hill to leafier parts of Edinburgh. Now we have two stand-out wine bars for some revved up grape juice.
Toast brings a little bit of Shoreditch to the Shore, although it cleverly defies classification. The team deliver a coffee shop by morning, lunch daily, ice-cream and cakes, and an excellent wine selection into the early evenings.
Locals brave the outdoor tables, often more in hope than expectation of decent weather. A glass or two by the Water of Leith goes down well even with the passing traffic, on foot and car.
Zak Hanif has been associated with a few Leith venues, running a brilliant restaurant in the Whisky Society vaults for a time. It was in one of Leith’s most perfect rooms, complete with Georgian features and lit with candlelight on the grounds that no electricity could be added to the original plasterwork.
Toast has settled down well and is a firm favourite with locals. The wine list is generous in approach. Zak often has a txakoli, a lightly sparkling wine from northern Spain traditionally poured from a height to agitate the bubbles. There was a decent Japanese wine for a period, and he introduced Leith to orange wine.
Mistral is at the bottom of Bonnington Road next to Fox’s Bar but offers a rather, well, different experience. Julie Di Toro and Sam Baker launched during lockdown, first as a bottle shop and later gaining an on-sales licence. It’s a great minimalist space and has become this reviewer’s go-to place for a drink in Leith.
It is up-market but eminently casual. Bottles to go aren’t cheap, but they do offer real quality from small producers who care deeply about their produce. Julie and Sam know the trade well, and have worked internationally. This knowledge, and their contacts, shine through. This is the kind of place you come for a glass or two, ranging from about £6 to £9 a glass. Four or five reds and whites are chalked up on a board each day, usually with a glass of fizz too.
In many wine bars, you encounter one or two wines that are new to you. Julie and Sam do it the other way round; chances are most of the wines will be new to you. There is an odd, if admittedly small, thrill to be had knowing that you are drinking the first bottle of Corpinnat ever opened in Leith.
Curious? I was, so Sam explained how nine cava producers had broken away from the complex industry regulatory arrangements in Spain to focus on the innovation and quality of wines solely from Penedès rather than the broader Cava area, gaining along the way a new formal designation. There is always a house cocktail on offer: think bitter aperitivos.
Mistral has a decent-sized kitchen, and they have been slowly upping the quality and range of their offering. It might be hard to have a full dinner there, but not impossible if you ordered the whole menu in one sweep, something affectionately known in these parts as ‘doing a Dave’, for reasons best not disclosed (at least not without another glass of Corpinnat).
First comes a plate of boquerones, those glistening silver anchovies made for getting your fingers messy and gulping down. A bowl of marcona almonds comes next, salty in a different way and generally good to munch on. A white bean and garlic dip arrives, with superb crusty bread, and we order more of it. Julie is trying a range of croquettes, and we order them.
The meats are excellent. We have Italian fennel salami and a toast with nduja, that fiery spread from Calabria, topped with cooling ricotta. A plate of soppressata, dry salami typical of southern Italy, is generous and moreish. France is represented too, with a fine comte cheese and a creamy, oozing camembert-style. Pate de campagne is exceptional, and is made by a friend of Julie’s working out of London. The plating is simple: a slice, bread, cornichons, mustard. Perfection.
Mistral seem happy to work with other suppliers, which is refreshing to see as in this cut-throat world, it usually makes for a win-win. An impressive series of pasta nights has come to an end, where Aemilia from Portobello brought their world-class pasta and paired it excellently with wine from the shop. Hopefully we will see more of these. A new venture has just launched with Shrimpwreck, more Portobello food hipsters who bring what their name suggests.
I’ve heard that some folks don’t like wine bars and demand a wider range of drinks. Everyone has their fault, I suppose, and recommending bars is something us locals will have to do more of, certainly as Leith becomes ever more popular.
Many old-time places have loyal followers. Wilkie’s and the Central Bar are part of the furniture here, and may the same things go on there for ever. Teuchtar’s Landing has just been named best in the Lothians by VisitScotland. The Roseleaf is not bad. Amongst the newer faces, Nauticus wins for hipster cocktails. The people at Smoke & Mirrors know how to make a G&T, and also win the award for best door-curtain in the area.
Although it really comes into its own in better weather, Lost in Leith is a great addition. It’s branded as a bar and fermentaria, a name which might put me off if I’d looked too closely. But the people behind Campervan brewery have on-site barrel ageing going on, and an eclectic range of beers, stouts and saisons from well-chosen domestic and international small brewers.
I can’t wait for springtime to sit outside on their picnic benches with friends, lazily click on the app to get schooners delivered to the table, and, after one more than intended, run over the road and bring back an impromptu dinner from Pizza Geeks.
Speaking of pasta, Wild Maremma are soon to pack up their market stall in Leith, having opened new premises on the bottom of Dundas Street. It’s awfully swish up there, but they’ll still sell you an excellent box of pasta to take home.
Has anyone been to Coco Rico on Jane Street yet? It’s a new café on the site of a greasy spoon that operated for years pre-Covid. Their Instagram game is top-notch and I’m hearing good things. (Indeed. Ana and Mikael, the owners, have very good previous in Leith. She creates a great atmosphere and he is a wonderful chef – Editor.) ■
Pate de campagne and Mistral