Richard Bath reviews Edinburgh fish restaurant Fin & Grape and is blown away.
During the 17 years or so when I was reviewing at least one restaurant a week, I placed an enormous premium on places that were a little different from the pack.
When you eat out that often, you realise that so many restaurants are serving varieties on a theme, which becomes increasingly obvious as those themes change: monkfish one year, venison and chocolate sauce the next, and so on.
Although I’m reviewing less frequently these days, it’s still obvious when you come across a chef who genuinely thinks differently. Normally, they are well known and flagged up, but one of the great joys of eating out is when you come across unexpectedly idiosyncratic excellence.
This self-described “neighbourhood restaurant” is on the site of what was, until Covid, the much-loved Bia Bistrot, and although I’d heard the newcomer mentioned in dispatches it wasn’t until Fin & Grape’s recent third anniversary that I decided to pay them a visit.
I arrived without preconceptions, good or bad, which made what followed over the next couple of hours all the more joyous. I’ve had some stupendous meals this year, but this was up there with the best.
Fin & Grape is, as the name suggests, a fish restaurant with an excellent wine list, with half its 60 covers on the ground floor, the rest in the basement.
There is a daily board of specials that when we visited included oysters, bonito and John Dory, but we instead chose to sample as wide a spectrum of dishes as possible by going for seven of the small sharing plates that ranged in price from £
Given what unfolded, that was the right choice. Chef-patron Stuart Smith sent out a steady stream of dishes that seemed to get better and better as the meal progressed. The opening salvo consisted of a decent grilled hand-dived Skye scallop each (virtually all of the fish is sustainably caught in Scottish waters) with pungent Gochujang butter adding a touch of spice and sweetness.
This was swiftly followed by a nice change of pace with a beautifully creamy salt cod mousse with just a hint of tartness, served on delicious home-made sourdough. Next up was another change of direction with a plate of aromatic salame toscana, which was cutely offset by the addition of sweetness of some fresh figs, honey and almonds.
The best was still to come though, and it arrived in the entirely unanticipated form of an ersatz cauliflower cheese made up of roasted but al dente cauliflower chunks, miso, spring onion and liberal shavings of ossau iraty, a firm but flavoursome Basque sheep-milk cheese that lends the dish a nutty hue and infuses it with hints of figs, hazelnuts and olives.
I still struggle to accept that I’m rhapsodising about a simple variation on cauliflower cheese, but the fusion of flavours and textures was perfect, the result memorable.
If that surprised me, so did the penultimate course of aubergine “schnitzel” with labneh, black garlic and dukkah. If I’m being honest, I only chose it out of curiosity because despite liking labneh, the unfeasibly creamy, tangy soft Middle Eastern cheese made from strained yogurt, I’m not terribly partial to aubergine.
It’s difficult to describe the end result, except to say that the exterior of the ‘schnitzel’ was a coating of dukka (the Egyptian mix of ground hazelnuts, sesame seeds, cumin, coriander, fennel seeds and salt which pops up to often in Yottom Ottolenghi recipes), while the interior avoided the unctuous, slimy texture I associate with aubergine. Throw in the creaminess of the labneh and you have an unexpectedly wonderful dish.
It was impossible to top those two dishes, but we rounded off a great meal with a large bowl of nicely judged vension ragu with polenta grilled radicchio and parmesan.
As for the wines, we had a bottle of “Cicada” 2022 – Domaine Chante Cigale and a glass of the house red, both of which were decent accompaniment for a stellar meal.
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