Review: Ardfern, Edinburgh

Richard Bath tries out the latest eatery from award-winning chef Roberta Hall McCarron.

I’ve been lucky enough to have reviewed more than my fair share of fancy dan, 10-course tasting menu-style establishments over the past few months – most of them new openings – so it was nice to get back to somewhere more earthy. Ardfern is the latest creation of award-winning chef Roberta Hall McCarron, and unlike her existing stable of two highly rated restaurants in The Little Chartroom and Eleanore, bills itself as an all-day ‘café, bar and bottle shop’.

In the sense that this makes it sound like an upmarket greasy spoon, that is actually a pretty misleading description. Ardfern (which is named after the Argyll marina where the sailing mad Hall McCarron used to shiver her timbers with her family as a kid) is chic, pared-down and relaxed, but it has basically the same unpretentious but classy vibes as TLC and Eleanore, just with smaller plates.

As for describing itself as a bottle shop, if having a bar behind which most of the bottles of wine cost thirty or forty quid qualifies, then I fully support Ardfern’s right to identify as a bottle shop in the same way that I would support the Balmoral’s right to identify as a hostel.

If that sounds a bit narky, it’s not meant to be because I really enjoyed Ardfern. In fact, this is somewhere I’ll return to on multiple occasions because it’s interesting, affordable and convivial. It’s exactly the sort of place you would meet an old mate for a catch-up, and at a stretch it could be somewhere you might go if there’s nothing in the fridge or you’re working late and just can’t be bothered to cook. Although I went in the evening, it also serves breakfast and lunch, about which I hear universally good things.

So, what’s the food like? It’s small plates which range from £7 for supersized nibbles to £14.50 for bigger small plates, if that makes sense. We started with four of the starter dishes, but before they arrived we had a plate of their grilled ante sourdough bread (£4), at which point I experienced something of an out of body experience. The quality of bread has sky-rocketed of late, but this was arguably the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant and, honestly, I’d be happy to come back simply to eat bread and drink wine.

Next up were mushroom hash browns with truffle pecorino (£7), kedgeree fritters with cured egg and curry mayo (£7), pork croquettes with pesto and pickled chilli (£7), and finally lamb merguez kofta with egg yolk and date molasses (£8). All were clearly designed with pairs of diners in mind and all were gone in a couple of bites. Of the four, the kofta is the dish I’ll choose first on my next visit.

Two of our three mains – if you can call them that – were served on bread, which was deftly used to bulke out both dishes. Both the light, fresh mix of heritage tomatoes and broad beans on cheese flatbread (£12), and the more muscular ox cheek with fermented carrot, chilli and sesame on flatbread (£14.50) were enjoyable, but over too soon. Ditto the cured sea trout with fennel (£11), which was excellent but whose time with us was even more fleeting.

We rounded off with pudding, which in future I’d avoid in favour of more savouries. There were only two choices, a rather dense chocolate and peanut butter cookie tart with crème fraiche (£7), and an affogato (£5), neither of which set the pulses racing.

That said, the bottom line was that I thoroughly enjoyed our meal. The service was friendly but unobtrusive, the excellent wine selection was sensibly priced, and if the portions were a little on the parsimonious side, that paucity wasn’t so extreme that I felt the need to carbo-load with a poke of chips and gravy on the way home (although for future reference there is a rather good chippy around the corner).

The best endorsement I can give is that I’m actively looking forward to going back to try both breakfast and lunch. Let’s hope both come with heaps of their sourdough bread.

Ardfern, 10-12 Bonnington Road, Edinburgh EH6 5JD. 

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