The Leith Glutton
My foodie tram spot crawl
We are all learning to live with the tram. Love it or loathe it, it is here to stay, transforming Leith in ways we don’t fully understand yet. It is hard to know whether the massive foodie changes over the last few years have been baked-in ahead of the tram opening, or are precursors of even greater things. Inspired by those mapping out pub crawls along the tram line, here is my foodie-hotspot crawl. A word of warning, however: this is a literary device, rather than a recommended dining schedule for any one evening. Even this Leith Glutton would be spreading things out over a number of days.
First things first, you will need a tram ticket. Good luck with that – those in charge have made it as hard as possible to negotiate two apps, clunky ticket machines, and obscure fare pricing. Roll on the promised tap-tap-tram fare capping.
Only people who don’t live here could name this project “Trams to Newhaven”. To us locals, they are “Trams to the Airport”. See how you like them apples, Edinburgh-Council-up-town. Right, on to the food reviews. Being a logical sort of chap, we are starting our great voyage of adventure at the genesis of the track.
Our first stop is, appropriately, The Fishmarket Newhaven (the restaurant) which is near the Newhaven stop (which is, itself, sort of near Newhaven). This has cemented its status as the best chippie for miles. Twenty years ago, L’Alba D’oro in the New Town was the undisputed champion – a place that would sell a bottle of Krug along with your breaded fish supper, if that were your scene. It is a little more restrained now, but retains a loyal clientele. For a while, the champion’s belt was passed to The Tailend on Leith Walk, a firm with a strong Tayside pedigree, but they have retreated to Dundee only. And now, despite a fondness for Pierino’s, The Newhaven reigns supreme. The fish is fresh as can be, and the chips excellently cooked. We sit on the pier the day the first tram runs, enjoying the wild prawn scampi as the sun beams down. On previous visits, we’ve even scoffed some crispy crab claws. It is worth the forty-minute queue. There is a sit-in restaurant too, but it always tastes better on the quayside here.
Next stop is Ocean Terminal (actually at Ocean Terminal). Avoid the weary chain offerings inside, and head to Alby’s on North Junction St. To say this is a sandwich shop is a bit like comparing the Commonwealth Pool to my bathtub. At Alby’s, everything is served big: big slabs of focaccia, big taste, big gentrification. This is all uniformly delicious and, having confirmed it is as good as previous Leither reviews, we carry on. Open until early evening, some days of the week.
The Port of Leith is a bar on Constitution Street, but confusingly is also the name of a tram stop on Ocean Drive. This is the nearest ding-ding halt for a trio of Leith favourites: Fishers, The Shore, and The Ship on The Shore. These three grandes dames always deliver. We opt for The Shore, which has the least fishy menu but still cooks fish brilliantly. I love this kind of place: cross the threshold and there is a bar on the left, a bistro on the right. Parisian posters from the roaring twenties stare down from the walls. We start with mussels, big juicy mussels, in the classic white wine preparation. There is home-cured salmon, with excellent flavour, served with horseradish and croutons. We order two fish for mains. Seabass is cooked with saffron and well-prepared potatoes. The plaice is a larger portion, cooked perfectly, and served simply. A special mention to the lovely front-of-house staff, including the beekeeper-turned-waiter who patiently explained the inner workings of his apiary to us, along with some impromptu visual aids. If you need a drink, pop into Moonwake for their excellent brewery-to-table beers.
And then on from The Shore (the restaurant) to The Shore (the tram stop) which is confusingly not on The Shore (the street), but actually on Constitution Street. Follow me? I would suggest some renaming of the tram stops on this section of the line, but the last thing we want is any more disruption; that is what the Leith Connections road-blocking programme is for. We move on and alight at Nobles, which is next to The Shore (tram stop), for a quick feed. Everyone’s had a great night at Nobles at some point. The burgers are reliable, although the kitchen can do much more than that, and it is just a lovely place to down a pint.
Quickly, we jump back on the tram and get off at The Foot of the Walk. You’ve maybe spotted a theme here, as this is not at the foot of the Walk at all; rather it is firmly at the Head of the Constitution. We head straight up to Desi Pakwan for, as it titillatingly promises, some Live Punjabi Cooking. The food is authentic, hot, and undeniably good. A huge grill sizzles, flames, and smokes. Kebabs are blasted, turned, and blasted again. Curries are formed in half-moon pans, and bread baked in a tandoor. Their dishes with karela – oddly translated as bitter melon gourd – are particularly good. You can eat at the formica tables or take away.As I write, Desi Pakwan is closed for refurbishment but promises to be back soon - thankfully.
Next stop is Balfour Street (actually on Leith Walk, but reasonably near Balfour Street). Our go-to here is Orinoco, serving Venezuelan and Colombian street food. Like Desi Pakwan, you can sit in, but most people take away. The signature dish here is the arepa, made from ground maize flour and filled with things, usually involving cheese in some form. These are a perfect snack or small meal. Orinoco also make their own empanadas, salsas, and cachapas (corn pancakes, Venezuelan style, folded over and stuffed). It is a great family food place.
Making our way north, we get off at McDonald Road (actually on Leith Walk, but reasonably near McDonald Road). We try very hard to go to Kawaneko Katsu and Coffee, which has a phenomenal reputation for Japanese food. Getting one of the few tables is complex, however. We try to book, get told to turn up soon, and then get told brusquely to go away; it is 7.30pm and they are closing at 8. Fine. I’ll review it if I can ever get in to taste the food.
And on to our final stop of the new track: Picardy Place (on Picardy Place). We are firmly in Edinburgh now, not Leith. There is no shortage of restaurants here, catering to thronging theatre and cinemagoers. I had heard positive things about La Sal, but am sadly disappointed. The dishes are original, and not too distorted to British tastes, but sadly not executed consistently. To be charitable, it is a lot better than many tapas restaurants in this country, and perhaps we ordered badly. Dishes are stodgy. It is brilliant to be asked how you’d like your tortilla to be cooked (clue: runny), but the flavour isn’t there. Ironically for a restaurant of this name, it needs a lot of seasoning which is, after all, the job I am paying the chef to do tonight. That said, the battered cod chunks were pure Andalucía, the braised beef cheek tasty, and the whole meal, at £59 for two including wine, was a lot cheaper than others nearby.
And with one final bite of a croquetas, we fumble for our tram tickets, stumble to the platform, and trundle home to Leith, reaffirmed in our belief that you don’t need to go up The Walk to get a good meal. Or, to riff on the old joke, the best thing to come out of Edinburgh is actually the tram to Leith. ■
Sea Bass, saffron asparagus; Nobles tram stop