Monday, 30 August 2010

A weekend in Edinburgh ...

Staycations became the must-have holiday for credit-crunched city workers in 2009 and the trend shows no sign of dying as we enter the second half of 2010 (something that may satisfy and alarm our coalition government in equal measures).
Always ones to milk a trend for all its worth, my erstwhile partner-in-crime (the Northerner) and I decided visit Edinburgh for a summer break. It wasn't quite the oxymoron it might sound. OK, so the city did not have the sub-tropical heat wave that has swept London this summer, but it certainly offered enough to keep us entertained over a long and indulgent weekend. And best of all, not a ginger wig or kilt in sight. Well, not many, anyway.

Mal’s place
We stayed at the Malmaison in the Port of Leith, a couple of miles from the centre of Edinburgh. I’m a longtime fan of these purveyors of boutique hotel excellence, and the Scottish capital’s version did not let me down. Set in the former seaman’s mission, the architectural excellence of the building - supported by its high quality service, food and wine - allows you to forget the somewhat dated interior design template that the Mals seem so fond of. (Think late nineties/early noughties blacks and purple). As we were there during the weekend of the British Open, the place was full of middle-aged and well-heeled golfing buffs, plus a small smattering of hen weekenders. Not ones to shy from the fray, the Northerner and I sampled the various hotel offerings, and were partial to breakfast, the odd coffee and drink at the bar, and room service. (Why should it be that in all my years of four- and five-star hotels, this is the first time that the starter and main have been sent up in the order you’d expect in a restaurant rather then at the same time?) We were after a little bit of luxury just outside the centre of the city, and the Mal delivered.

Tigers and Swedes
Drinking north of the border need not be a whiskey-centric affair, and over several nights we were fortunate to find bars that catered for all shapes and sizes. A Thursday night out with work colleagues whetted the appetite with some of the more glamorous bars that Edinburgh has to offer. We spent a good few hours at Tiger Lily’s, a bar which attracts Edinburgh’s young and the beautiful and is more Mayfair then Soho (i.e. a crowd that's more professional than creative). But it’s a vibrant bar with an Ibiza lounge soundtrack, and better still if you move beyond the front bar - which effectively is just an adjunct to the reception - to the cocktail bar in the rear. A warning though: a few of the gang sampled their signature drink, a potent blend of vanilla vodka, single malt whisky, rose petal liqueur and soda. It looked and tasted as delicious as it sounds, however given the state of their heads the next day, I’d suggest restricting yourself to one. Two at a push.

At the other extreme in terms of style and location is Sofi’s in Leith, which the Northerner and I visited on the Saturday night. Sofi’s is apparently one of four Swedish bars in Edinburgh, and while it didn’t remind me of anywhere I have been in Scandinavia, the splashes of pastel yellows and blues and offerings of Swedish food and lagers does go someway towards living the theme. Eclectic interiors with fairy lights, personal photos and the de rigueur art installations are complemented by a jazz funk soundtrack, and too cool-for-school local artists, designers and students who were (as with everyone North of the border) reassuringly friendly. The eclecticism extends through its theme nights, from Champagne Sunday to Film night Monday to Knitting night Tuesday. I was assured that the rest of the week is dedicated to serious drinking. The Northerner and I debated whether this bar would look more at home in Dalston or Manchester’s Northern Quarter before deciding to give Edinburgh due credit and declaring Leith a bar and restaurant destination in its own right.

Say No to Mars Bars
Dining in Scotland is not the deep-fried mars bars experience that legend suggests, although I’m assured that these delicacies can be found for those with a more inquisitive palate. For the rest of us who like a food of an entirely different (read: better) quality, the Northerner and I found plenty of options. Foodies need look no further then the regenerated Leith docks for a range of seafood, and British, Asian and Middle-Eastern restaurants and cafes. Seafood lovers like the Northerner and I took advantage of two local favourites. The Shore on Leith Walk is more gastro than pub, and does a superb line in fish and shellfish plus the more traditional meat dishes - the wood pigeon, pork belly and racks of lamb on other diners’ plates certainly looked appetising. We went for the fish-fest option of poached salmon and fish pie, washed down with a glass or two of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Simple, warm, and delicious. Just like the place.

Café Fish a little further up the hill is an altogether more fashionable affair. All stainless steel and white interior, the restaurant gets more urban points for its exposed brickwork and fittings. What might sound clinical and cold is anything but, as the friendly staff serve up an excellent seafood-oriented menu with an extensive wine and champagne list. Menu highlights for us included the Stornoway black pudding goat’s cheese and caramelised onions for starters, and spiced Atlantic cod and grilled lemon sole mains. Café Fish gave us an elegant dining experience which didn’t bruise the wallet.

Something that summed up our entire weekend north of the border.