It's no secret that quality food can be hard to come by in Scotland. The climate's not very good for growing much of anything, and somewhere along the line local tastes made a mass migration towards things cloaked in fried batter. And when good food does appear, it's usually under the guise of an expensive and somewhat pretentious restaurant meal, the kind that if you live here you can probably only afford once or twice a year. With that in mind, I've decided to profile a few of the places I've discovered over my years in Edinburgh that really stand out, whether for the quality of their food, their ambience, or the strikingly good value they represent in a city with often overblown food prices.
First on anyone's list of local foodie gems should be Plaisir du Chocolat. This diminutive cafe and pâtisserie, which actually encompasses two locations across the street from each other, is a little haven of France in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town. On a bleak winter's day there is nothing more comforting than to spend a few hours lounging beneath the potted palms at one of their iron tables, drinking in the smells of chocolate simmering away in the back kitchen. The decor, with its understated Art Nouveau elegance, along with the slightly aloof waitstaff will leave you feeling like you've been teleported across the Channel - and to complete the illusion they'll even let you pay for your chocolate in Euros.
As the name suggests, chocolate here is the prima donna, but they do seem to make a brisk business of selling real food as well. The food is supposed to be very good, things like salmon quiche and tarte à l'oignon, foie gras terrine and braised rabbit, but it's not cheap, and let's not kid ourselves - the only reason you really want to come here is the chocolate. I was lured here the first time by descriptions of their hot chocolate, which is how I discovered that they also take a lot of pride in their tea. The menu I was given for hot chocolate, in fact, listed nothing but teas for the first forty pages or so, complete with descriptions of the hillside they were grown on, the handwashing habits of their pickers, and the general climatic situation at the moment of their harvest. An impressive collection, I'm sure, but I was more interested in the chocolate. Tucked away on the back page, it's not an incredibly long list, but it encompasses a lot. Depending on your mood you can order a single origin hot chocolate (Venezuelan, Caribbean, or Madagascar?), something called 'chocolate espresso' (a tiny espresso cup of warm ganache), or various liquer-imbued concoctions. They make their hot chocolate from melted bars of high-percentage Michel Cluizel, and they don't dishonor the brown gold by bumping up the sugar content. They do have sugar around, obviously, as I discovered when I made the obvious faux-pas of asking for some to make my 99% Noir Americain a little more palatable (the uncomprehending look from the waitress was enough to discourage me from doing *that* again). If you're in the mood for chocolate in a more solid form, they have a selection of cakes to die for. Just go up to the counter and point at what you want - they're all good.
Finally, if you can avert your eyes from the cakes for long enough you'll see that they also produce chocolate in a more transportable form, which is just the thing if you're wondering how to take all this chocolate ecstasy home with you. They sell little ganache-filled chocolates, beautifully decorated and full of flavors which will surely spark some after-dinner conversation. How about hot chili, rosewater or smoked tea? Or maybe whiskey and heather honey? Make sure you read the full list of flavors on the wall before you make your selection - and try to remember which is which, because you will certainly buy so many different flavors that you won't remember when you're home.
Plaisir du Chocolat, 251-253 Canongate, Edinburgh. Tel. 0131 556 9524
Update July 2007: It saddens me deeply to report that due to financial problems, Plaisir du Chocolat has closed! While there appears to be a new chocolate-based business in its place, it is in no way affiliated with the original. Plaisir's website says they are looking for a new address and will hopefully be open in time for Christmas; I'll certainly post it here once I know about it.