Michael Neave’s Kitchen and Whisky Bar is hidden at the bottom of Old Fishmarket Close, one of the historical streets that run from the Royal Mile to the Cowgate, in a bright, modern space that was a Thai restaurant the last time I was there (a few years ago now). It is a warm, welcoming place with a comfortable bar upstairs and a large restaurant below. It’s a stylish space with calm green walls, white ceilings and blond wood keeping the space bright in the day and intimate at night.
I went there on my birthday (good timing) and enjoyed a fabulous meal. C was with me and we were ready to be critical. The website mentioned that Michael’s menu doesn’t see vegetarian dishes as an afterthought but wanted everyone who visited to get an interesting meal. That’s quite the challenge to a omnivore/vegetarian couple who eat out a lot. We were not disappointed.
Vegetarian options change with the seasons, but not at much as they could. Mushroom risottos are over represented, as is aubergine and halloumi. There’s so much more to veggie fare. And Michael gets that. But we didn’t go straight to the menu: first we had drinks.The upstairs bar is a relaxing and calm place to sit, with a nice view out to the close that goes past the restaurant. It’s the perfect place to cosy in on a rainy day, have a whisky and watch the world and weather. We’re fans of whisky but both wanted G&T’s before dinner. So that’s what we drank while we looked at the extensive whisky list and planned drinks for future visits.
It was a Wednesday, so the main restaurant was quiet when we went downstairs to our table. We had a good view of the room and the nook, an intimate-looking raised and partially enclosed area that fits 6-8 for more private dining. Lights twinkled and flowers brightened the tables. The menu offered many pleasures and did not disappoint either carnivore or vegetarian.
I started with the scallops, caviar butter, black pudding and celeriac puré. Sometimes, there’s too much black pudding and although I love the stuff, it’s very filling and I don’t want to fill up on my starter. This dish was wonderfully balanced. Thin, crispy slivers of black pudding gave the spicy, irony flavour that goes so well with delicate, perfectly cooked scallops. The puré was a comforting background and the caviar popped deliciously in my mouth. C., meanwhile, had a dish of spinach and riccota gnocchi that was fabulous: creamy, smooth and perfectly flavoured. There were three veggie starter options, one of which can be made into a main. That’s a feast of options.
My main, roe deer with carrot and lavender puré, fondant potato and rosemary and Auchentoshan sauce, was delicious. The carrot and lavender purée was so good I asked for more… Cooking with lavender takes a good palate – if you add too much it turns medicinal and nastily perfumed. With the right amount, it does very interesting things to familiar ingredients. I really enjoyed it. It worked very well with the pink, smokey deer. C’s roast butternut squash and feta wellington was impressive too. It came with a lovely, tangy salad and had a beautiful, brown crisp skin. After The Great British Bakeoff we’re Wellington experts, and this was really good: crispy all around, with a tasty, moist filling.
Desert was a difficult decision. C, much to my surprise, went for the salted caramel and Vahlrona chocolate tart, a pastry shell full of dark, glossy ganache. I had the sea buckthorn and rose petal parfait with orange blossom jelly. It was a very pretty dish, a rose petal visible in the delicate pink of the frozen parfait. The jewel-like jellies scattered on the plate were pleasantly orangey but the one on top of the parfait had a vivid pop of passion-fruit that I really enjoyed. We met Michael, who’d cooked for us, as we left and he told us that he was interested in using ingredients found around us that are rarely used. Sea buckthorn is one such ingredient. It has quite sour berries and each batch is a little different. It’s not an easy ingredient to use and I’m impressed that he works with it. He’s was also true to his word with regards to the vegetarian options: certainly not an afterthought.
We were waited on by Costas over the evening, with great attention and charm. The restaurant has been open since the summer and they had a great festival. If you want to visit at the weekend, you’re best booking a table. The week is less busy, but that will change, coming up to Christmas. The restaurant’s lovely, the food is fabulous and the chef is going to go far. It’s difficult not to make a big thing about Michael Neave being young, because he is. But the important thing is that he’s got skill, ambition and a palate that knows how to put flavours together. We can look forward to following his career, and eating his food, for a good long time.