So, last night was the Tower. Which is a restaurant on the 5th (top) floor of the National Museum of Scotland, a shortish walk from our hotel through Edinburgh’s flat cobblestone streets, between rows of grey stone buildings with touches of Neoclassicism (Edinburgh was a very grand place in the 18th century–shipping, the colonies, and, yeah, bad things like the slave trade). When you get to the museum, night guards take your name and call up to the restaurant to see if your table is ready or, if not, if there is space for you to sit at the tiny and coveted bar. Failing that, you are invited to wander around the exhibition hall of the first floor, where the Neolithic artifacts are, so long as you don’t wander out of the sight of said guards (and if you do, you are chided and called back like a wayward first grader on a field trip — let’s not have elements of the increasingly numerous and at times oppressively huge tourist influx pocketing arrowheads…).
Above, in the (quite small) restaurant, they’ve achieved a pretty impressive feat: every one of the tables enjoys a view out over the castle, which is high on a hill and thus more or less at eye level. Those seats that do not face the panoramic-view window are within easy eye-shot of a mirror, and their occupants can thus enjoy a sort of through-the-looking-glass version of the same vista as their table companions. In August it still gets dark quite late here, so we were able to observe the last wave of the sunset (it’s actually _sunny_ here, go figure…), with dramatically piled purple clouds, the odd seagull flitting about for local color, and then watch as the floodlights illuminating the castle (as if it required more drama) gradually took over.
With so much attention paid to ambience, you’d be forgiven for imagining the food to be mediocre, but it is not. This time mon copain had the risotto–green because of the fines herbes, and made using local/Scottish cheese in place of Parmesan. If it were to go mano-a-mano with the root-vegetable risotto from our hotel’s room service, I’m not sure who would win, but I definitely want to be on the judging panel. My fresh-caught, pan-fried hake (you’re missing out on something very special if you fail to make every dinner about fish while in Scotland–le copain lives here, so he can be more blase’ about this, but decent fish is hard to come by in Ithaca, so profitons-en) was soft almost to the point of creaminess, though the skin-side was crunchy-crispy (nice contrast, nothing needed but butter and lemon juice). It came perched atop creatively stacked potatoes au gratin (more Scottish cheese instead of French, the Scots are justly proud of their local cheeses and feel poorly done by in terms of the larger public’s understanding of this fact and so flout culinary norms anytime they can in order to showcase them…). I know we had starters, but honestly I was so taken by the hake that I can’t remember what they were, especially after the second glass of a cheeky little Australian chardonnay that goes by the name of Innocent Bystander. Which had been preceded by a bottle of Pol Roger (we love duty free) back at the hotel, all of which, I’m afraid, rendered me a very unreliable narrator for what remained of the evening.
On Sundays the dinner options are somewhat reduced, most people having the continental habit (even tho’ they are not, technically, on the continent) of stuffing their faces at midday and recouping into the evening hours. So your best bet is a hotel. Having already eaten at ours and looking for an excuse to leave the very comfy room, we set off toward Holyrood, which is at the far end of the Royal Mile, a ways down the hill from the castle. Most of the buildings are sixteenth century and, unlike in England, at that time they were already building tall here. Maybe something to do with the craggy landscape — if you’re a noble, where else for you but the Royal Mile; you might catch the king and his retinue moving between the secular and religious seats of power: Holyrood is a royal palace which actually encases a 15th-century monastery for Augustinian canons — as every moneyed member of the royalty and/or nobility knows, the best monks are the ones you own…well, canons were secular clergy rather than monastic, so it is something of a misnomer to call them monks, but they did live a celibate life, at least in theory, and they occupied monkish cells stripped of all earthly comforts and wore unattractive robes and hideous sandals and bathed even less than most people, and got up at ungodly hours on a daily basis to talk to God (wonder if God was awake at that hour…) at matins, and they had a monastic rule based on the Benedictines’, so yeah, for our purposes and for the king’s, they were monks.
I see I’ve digressed from the nobles. And the tall buildings. Pardonnez-moi, it’s Monday morning. But think about it—with all those majestic escarpments and crags rising on every side, and that big effing palace up at the top of the hill looming over you and yours, like you’re going to limit yourself to two stories?…
Fortunately for us the heavily touristed Mile was all but empty as we set out toward our destination–a hotel with MacDonald in the name somewhere (imagine the ruddy, kilted Americans who show up there looking for their roots, only to find out that no one named MacDonald ever lived there, it used to be the slums…), the nearest landmark being the Scottish Parliament building, designed by a Barcelonese architect clearly drunk on Gaudi, where the dirty deed of Scottish independence will be done and officially sealed if there is another referendum and it is successful, in which case my companion swears he will flee Scotland, but I digress again, sorry, it’s Monday. It was rainy and we peered into deserted shop windows, which is what the ground floors of most of the nobles’ tall houses have become, stores with names like “Thistle Do Nicely” and “Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe,” the latter of which operates year-round and would appear, from its window display, to do a brisk trade in tartan-themed Christmas ornaments and related doo-dads. I’m betting a lot of their business comes from my own compatriots.
It took us a while to find the restaurant, because the area behind Parliament was still a slum when my companion lived there more about three decades ago, and he makes it a point of pride never to carry a map around Edinburgh, and of course we don’t have smart phones, and the streets were deserted and for the most part devoid of signage, so we stopped two German teenagers whose English was astonishingly bad for Germans. Not that they’re obligated, of course, but most Germans I have encountered, especially young ones, speak better English than I do.
The restaurant was named Acanthus, a nod to Scotland’s 18th-century, Neo-Classical grandeur , only this was a thoroughly modern hotel named MacDonald where no one named MacDonald had ever dwelt, to our knowledge. Rather, it is part of the gentrification of the formerly slummiest and most crime-ridden part of Edinburgh, so none of those old buildings were worth keeping, and so it’s all concrete and steel and glass and Gaudi-wanna-be, like the house of Parliament. Not a lot of Scottishness around: we were welcomed by an Indian host, our waitress was Bulgarian and we were surrounded by tables of fat (I know, it’s not politically correct to say fat anymore, but they were) American ladies, e.g. 4 of them sharing 3 desserts and calling it dieting. They gave me the stink-eye, maybe because I had a male companion, or maybe because they hated my boots.
Our meal was acceptable but nondescript and we were so famished by the time we were seated that we’d happily have gnawed on a table leg if served on a chic slate platter and garnished with capers, so I will not occupy anyone’s time with details. Tonight we are back in Old Town at a renowned seafood place, which promises to be worth writing home about.
Did you know that the United Kingdom’s two most plentiful and profitable exports are whiskey and salmon? So they better hope Scotland stays. If it left would that be a Scexit? (Sexit is probably no longer available as a domain name…).