Review by Lucas Miller.
Prices: Inexpensive to moderate.
Prices are all in British Pound Sterling.
Neither venue is wheel chair accessible.
Neither venue is particularly formal, though most customers tend to wear jackets.
Hendrick’s Gin: http://www.hendricksgin.com
Last year, The Dogs opened on Hanover Street. It has since been established in the eating scene here in Edinburgh, sparking ecstatic reviews from most critics and was even nominated for the prestigious Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland award for best restaurant. The prices are correct (very affordable at lunch time); the menu is unique; the atmosphere is relaxed. Most importantly, however: the food is delicious.
Hanover Street is just off George Street. The location of The Dogs is thus central, within a few minutes walk from most of the major hotels and about ten minutes from the West End. Its position next to George Street also makes it ideal, perhaps, for a pre-clubbing dinner (why, who’s to frown at a few short-skirted females?!).
The restaurant’s usually very busy, for lunch and dinner, so it’s wise to reserve a table beforehand. I usually do so in person on the occasion, then walk down Queen Street, turn right, and step downstairs into the Bramble Bar. (Avoid the more obvious choice of Jeckel & Hyde next door to The Dogs, which is a horrid bar, with radioactive-looking drinks served in test tubes). Bramble, on the other hand, is such a great place, that the longer the wait, the better. Here, they specialize in gin cocktails. Their list has all the classics – Plymouth (ordinary and navy strength), Bombay, Tanqueray, Gordons &c. But those looking for something special, would do well to try Hendrick’s, a Scottish gin, which Bramble does especially well. The Hendrick’s distillery in Ayrshire uses a Carter-Head Still from the 19th century, one of only four in the world. Its ingredients are unique, infusing cucumbers and rose petals. It is therefore garnished not with lime, but cucumber (and rose petals if you’ve got them). Aside from an excellent G&T (3.50, for Hendrick’s), there are a number of Hendrick’s “tea” cocktails (7.00). These are served in a stemmed tea-cup and are flavourful variations of the martini. Those looking for an ordinary martini (7.00, for Hendrick’s), however, will not be disappointed. The bar staff here are among the few in Edinburgh that are still capable of making that simple classic. Aside from the high quality of the drinks and staff, the ambience here is marvellous. There are some lofty spots with cushions, where one can recline comfortably (the Glasgow Herald says these are good for clandestine liaisons, lecherous devils!). It is dimly lit, always with an excellent DJ, playing music with “soul.” In the late evening, the music gets rather too loud for conversation, but it is very good. The decor is modern, but there is a touch of the 1920s speak-easy too, suggested by the discreet downstairs location, subtle lighting and music. The customers are mostly fashionable young chaps and chapettes, dressed with real elegance. Each visit to The Dogs should begin and end with a visit to the Bramble Bar.
Unfortunately, Bramble is not open for pre-lunch drinks (It opens at 16:00. This is odd, since their menu features a “Corpse Reviver No. 2” made with Zuidam Genever, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, freshly squeezed lemon juice and Clandestine Absinthe, which is really a breakfast drink.). If you are looking for some pre-lunch drinks then, there is also Grand Cru and 99 Hanover, both on Hanover Street. However, these are a bit expensive (Hendrick’s G&Ts at 99 Hanover are 3.80) and cater mostly to stuffy, bourgeois bankers. However, Bramble does not have beer on draught, so for beer lovers these two may be a better option.
After a few drinks, it is only a matter of about twenty yards back to The Dogs (from any of the bars mentioned above). You enter a foyer of simple white walls, with a black and white checked floor. Two dog statues faithfully welcome you in. As you step upstairs there is another representation of a dog, silhouetted and holding a fork. This is the logo. At the summit (it’s not actually such a big climb), you are greeted by the friendly staff (The girls are all very pretty and sweet.). If there is still time to wait, they have a small area where one can sit and enjoy a drink. Otherwise, you are ushered to your table. The room is not so large, but the tables are given plenty of space. At night, the lighting is dim to just the right degree, creating an atmosphere of table sovereignty. At lunch, it is brightened by the white walls and large windows, which is chipper. There is no music to interfere with conversation. Behind the bar, there is a large, out-of-focus photograph of a dog which looks on. I didn’t mind it, but one in the group said it was an ugly animal (I’m not sure of the breed). There is also a peculiar horned sculpture, that looks rather devilish. We all liked that one.
The Dogs is especially renowned for its focus on local, British ingredients, particularly Scottish. The seafood all comes from Fife and Caithness. The website also adds that the fish are all sustainable. On the wine list there are even a few options from England, although most come from more obvious vineyards in France, Spain, Italy and the Americas.
To start, they have excellent artisanal bread, always served still warm from the oven (0.85 per person). There is also a delicious, fresh salad of pear, stilton and walnuts (small – 4.20, big – 7.50).
For the main course, I was anxious to try some fish, so I focused on that part of the menu. The fish being Scottish (and I being an American), there were a number of dishes I was unsure of. The staff were helpful in recommending and explaining. At lunch, I’ve ordered the kedgeree, a spiced fish and rich curry with a hard-boiled egg, as well as the seafood and bulgar wheat potage, a sort of bouillabaisse with a good variety of ingredients (each were 4.95). Both were delicious. At dinner, I ordered a seared coley with barley risotto (8.65). The waiter told me that coley is a Scottish fish commonly used in Scottish fish & chips suppers (The English use haddock.). It is very tasty unfried, quite tender. Not a great variation of choices on my part, I agree, but the divine smell of fish is always in the air and for me was irresistible. However, my companions to dinner, Alfred and Charles, ordered differently. Alfred had a beetroot, roast garlic and goats cheese barley risotto (8.75) and Charles had the pan fried turkey breast, cabbage, smoked bacon, chestnuts (8.95). My lunchtime companions, Martin and Alexander, ordered, respectively: a three cheese cauliflower risotto (4.75), and the pot roasted chicken leg (5.25), which was appropriately crisp and served with mashed potatoes and carrots. All was served nicely (and with good sized portions) without the pretentious ornamentation all too common in contemporary restaurants of this sort. The choice of barley in the risottos makes for an interesting variation of a classic food, very different from its Italian original. It has a definite taste of Britain in it.
With dinner, we had a bottle of the Brise de France Cabernet Sauvignon (11.45), the house red. I was afraid this might not go with the coley, but its rich, velvety texture complemented nicely the denseness of the barley. It was cheap, and better wine than I’m used to. At lunch, Martin and I ordered the Brise de France Chardonnay (11.45) which went very well with my kedgeree and his risotto. This was good and inexpensive, so Alexander and I did the same when we went the next week. Each table is given a pitcher of water, so there is no need for the obtrusive and continuous filling of glasses by waiters.
I dined as a student and with fellow students, and almost everything was within our humble price range. The only dish above ten pounds is the skirt steak (10.95). There are a few dishes served for two which all sound delicious: the crispy pork belly, homemade mustard, butter beans (16.96); the fish, mussel, leek and cider pie with mash (18.85), and the Cumberland sausage ring, mustard lentils and onion gravy (16.75). These would be good for a date.
If there is one thing troublesome about the menu, is that there is a lack of vegetarian options. There is the mushroom and lentil wellington (7.95), an appealing variation of a dish classically meaty; the cauliflower, broccoli and potato bake (7.50), which sounds a bit plain and conventional, and the beetroot, roast garlic and goats cheese barley risotto (above), which Alfred liked well. A few more options could be added, I think.
Although, I’ve always found the staff to be exceptionally pleasant, there are a few complaints made on The List (http://www.list.co.uk/place/103126-the-dogs/), the definitive restaurant magazine for Scotland. The complaints are focused exclusively on David Ramsden, the proprietor who also waits tables and manages. Two of The List’s public contributors have described him as “rude, obnoxious and arrogant.” I have not yet been served by Mr Ramsden, but I have indeed noticed him. He is tall, thin, bald, wears black clothes and glasses and a large Gucci belt buckle. He has the air of an obsessive-compulsive, rushing to and from the kitchen, once nearly running me over as I returned from the gents. Another time, when Martin and I were reserving a table, we asked if he had anything available. Instead of answering, he paused briefly, looked behind him, and rushed on, letting a following waitress take care of us. A bit rude, yes, but we were helped very graciously by the young lady. And I once saw him chatting quite pleasantly with a table of Stockbridge locals, who seemed to frequent the place. I don’t think his presence detracts any from the overall experience, which is, let me reiterate, fabulous.
Whether you are an impoverished student or a gluttonous millionaire, The Dogs and the Bramble Bar are two places well worth a visit. They are likely, I hope, to become an Edinburgh institution.