RESTAURANT REVIEW: The Black Grape, Edinburgh

Richard Bath pays a visit to The Black Grape on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

FOR years I would wander to work down the Royal Mile and the Canongate, and virtually every day I’d wonder how Pancho Villas kept going. And not just going, but going and going and still bloody going. The Mexican restaurant set back from the road and just along from the iconic Canongate Kirk never seemed to have more than a smattering of customers – my only visit suggested why this might be – but it nevertheless bumbled gamely along for the best part of three decades.

However, all mediocre things come to an end. In this case, the demise of poor old Pancho (curiously, almost a century after the famous general of that same name was assassinated) has led to the arrival of the lovely The Black Grape, which definitely qualifies as a change for the better. Indeed, just how much of an improvement became clear when I visited recently to try out the new 60-cover restaurant that is the fruit of a collaboration between Murray Ainslie, ex of the Compass Group, and his business partners Stuart Hunter and Cameron Taylor.

The threesome have hit on the theme of “small plates, wine and good times”, and have redesigned the space to conjure up a relaxed contemporary vibe. All brick walls, muted green tongue and groove, herringbone hardwood flooring and Ercol-style tables and chairs, it feels slick, urban and on trend.

The menu, too, has clearly been agonised over and styled to within an inch of its life. That much was particularly clear on the cocktails, which you can tell are important because the space is split into two, with the area near the door – so the first thing you see as you enter – housing the bar. Former bartender of the year Joey Medrington helped produce 16 cocktails, including the signature “sour grapes” aperitif, which mixes Haku vodka with lemon oil, black grape cordial and Sauternes to whet the appetite.

A lot of thought has gone into this. To mark the proximity to Holyrood, there’s also a “parliamentarian” high-ball cocktail, in which a fiery Scotch-bonnet kick is added to Highland Park 12 year old, and there’s a nod to the venue’s former occupants with “pancho’s margarita”, a combination of Ocho Blanco, heather honey, bee pollen, pineapple, pressed lime and sea salt.

But once settled into our discreet half-moon banquette, we soon found that the main attraction was those small plates. These were created by head chef Owen Morrice, who started his culinary journey at one of my favourite gastropubs, The King’s Wark, although the six dishes we enjoyed – and honestly, we massively enjoyed them – are as far from the comfort food at Leith’s finest as you could get.

We started with two items off the “raw” menu, the beef tataki and the salmon tartare, and were blown away. The tataki – a Japanese process that involves pounding the marinaded meat – produced beef with the thickness of thick-cut bacon and with a flavour of an almost Bresaola-like intensity. Presented as three flowers, and served with Yuzu hollandaise and shallots, this was a great start to the meal. The salmon tartare, which was served with brown butter capers and lemon, had less impact, yet still flawlessly done.

Our next course saw the arrival of two dishes. The first was an outstanding fritter made of kimchi (the classic Korean dish made by fermenting cabbage and carrots in a tangy, spicy sauce), which was served with spring onion mayonnaise, while the second was a gloriously chewy ball of arancini (Sicilian stuffed rice balls that are coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried) containing spicy nduja sausage, with fennel and basil.

By now we were flagging, but had been recommended ordering six dishes, so we soldiered on. It proved to be well worth it, with the venison haunch with bramble and celeriac proving the equal of anything we’d eaten so far, while the dressed crab with fried potato and béarnaise was also excellent.

We rounded off with what was described as a Yuzu meringue pie, which turned out to be an absolutely classic lemon meringue pie, plus a disappointingly underpowered blackcurrant and cherry sorbet. That, however, was a rare bum note in an otherwise memorable meal. Panchos is dead, long live the grape.

The Black Grape, 240 Canongate, Edinburgh. 0131 237 4719,

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