In the middle of Edinburgh's tourist heartland, halfway down the infamous Royal Mile, buried deep among the uber-kitsch souvenir shops and bagpipe-wielding street musicians, there is a little underground restaurant that by all appearances, seems to be there solely to cash in on the tourist trade as well. You descend some claustrophobic steps into a basement room where the gaudiness of it all threatens to overwhelm you: heavy throne-like wooden chairs, lamps in the shape of torches on the walls, bunches of dried thistles and tapestries depicting scenes of medieval Scottish life decorate your dining nook. The waistcoated waitstaff seem to have been given an extra lesson is graciousness before you arrive, humbly thanking you for everything you let them do ('May I refill your wineglasses? Thank you very much indeed, Ma'am, Sir'). There's no Braveheart soundtrack playing on the stereo, thankfully, but there is Dean Martin on endless repeat. If Walt Disney had included Scotland in his World Showcase at Epcot Center - you know, the place with the little pavilions from different countries that try to cram as many clichés as possible into the space of a basketball court - this would be Scotland's restaurant.
If you have been to Epcot Center, or better yet if you've actually eaten at any of the restaurants in the World Showcase, you'll know that just because it's awash in Disney syrup doesn't mean it doesn't serve good food. For example, in France (that's Disney France, I mean), the Chefs de France and Bistro de Paris restaurants are co-owned by Paul Bocuse, Gaston Lenôtre and Roger Vergé, the godfathers of haute cuisine. I had the best Chiles en Nogada and Mole Poblano of my life in the Mexican pyramid pavilion, which boasts a fantastic restaurant called
Jackson's Interior the San Angel Inn. I can imagine that Scotland's restaurant would be no different, if it existed - along with all the bagpipes, thistles and overdone accents, you would be served some pretty decent food. And such is the case at Jackson's, only you don't have to travel to Florida to experience it.
We found ourselves in Jackson's for lunch last week, lured in by their seemingly amazing lunchtime offer of three courses for a mere £13. I had eaten at Jackson's once before, treated by a colleague of my mother's, and we had a delicious albeit pricy dinner. The food had been sumptuous and exciting - I had a duck and pink peppercorn terrine with blood orange sauce as my first course, and possibly the best filet mignon of my life which was served with a roquefort-port wine sauce so good I ended up eating it with a spoon. I believe the bill came to over £100, though I politely didn't ask for specifics. This time we went there for the acid test, however - there are a lot of restaurants that offer good food for dinner and good deals on lunch, but not many that please you equally no matter what time you go or how much you spend. Luckily, we needn't have worried.
The low-price lunch menu offers three to four choices per course, which represent a nice variety of ingredients and preparations. I
Smoked Trout Mousse chose a smoked trout mousse for my first course, and Manuel had smoked venison fillet atop a bed of beetroot salad. The mousse was exceptional, much better than I anticipated - the fish flavor was savory and smoky but
Smoked Venison Saladnot overpowering; the mousse itself was light and creamy and had a complex harmony of fresh herbs and pungent garlic, and it was nestled atop oven-dried tomato halves, whose sweetness perfectly complimented the savory mousse. Manuel's venison was also delicious and tender, though I could have had some slightly clearer flavors in the accompanying salad.
As a main course, I chose a roasted chicken supreme (breast plus wing) atop a haggis cake, served with a grainy mustard sauce. Manuel chose a pasta with beef filet and peppercorn sauce. Every component of my chicken was absolutely superb - the chicken was perfectly cooked and succulent, the
Chicken and Haggis Cake skin was crispy and well-seasoned, the sauce was piquant and creamy, and the haggis...oh the haggis! I've never had haggis like that - large chunks of vegetables and meat (what kind of meat? I prefer not to go there...) nestled in savory oat mash, and everything just so, well, tasty. Manuel also made grunts of
Beef & Peppercorn Pastahappiness over his pasta, which at first seemed a little out of character for the rest of the menu, but fit the standards well in terms of sheer flavor.
The food being so delicious excused the fact that the portions were a bit on the small side, and as a result I certainly had room for dessert. I was in a fruity mood and ordered a passionfruit pavolva with vanilla-pod ice cream and passionfruit sauce; however they had just run out and I had to settle for a Drambuie creme brulee. It was good, but not the highlight - the costs being equal, I would definitely go for one of their fancier concoctions next time. Manuel, stuffed on pasta, was happy with a whisky, and he was spoiled for choice. We lingered over our bottle of house wine (an above-standard Chilean
Drambuie Creme Brulee Cabernet Sauvignon) before leaving - the atmosphere, though jarring at first, had a way of seducing us into sleepy contentment and wisely no one rushed us out the door back into the tourist madness above. In fact, our waiter seemed so sad to see us go that he asked us when we'd be back. 'Soon', I promised, 'very soon'.
The Bill: For two lunch menus, a bottle of house wine, a whisky, coffees and tip: £46.
Reservations: A good idea for weekend dinners, or anytime during the Festival in August.
209 High Street
The Royal Mile
Tel: 0131 225 1793