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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Creelers in Edinburgh

The day: 4th October 2008, Dinner.

The place: 3 Hunter Square, Edinburgh EH1

The venue: Creelers Seafood Restaurant

The food: Mostly seafood

The drinks: Simple, well-priced wine list, and some beers.

After Sardinia, our insatiable hunger for all things fishy is not exhausted. So we go to Scotland, and among other culinary adventures that we’ll keep for ourselves, in Edinburgh, enticed after reading this, we decide to plump for this family owned restaurant. The family has a fishing background: they operate around the Isle of Arran, where they have another restaurant (in fact the original one). Located just off the touristy Square Mile, we can see that opening a branch in the thriving capital makes acute commercial sense. We hope the big city has not corrupted their Arran integrity…

The interior is warm and vivaciously decorated, with rustic tiled and wooden floors, paintings and mirrors on the walls, primary colours, no tablecloths.

The menu, as promised, caters for the fish-lover, but it also offers a few fine bits for the others. All dishes look simple but with some non-trivial culinary enticements. Starters are around the £7 mark, offering for example mussels steamed in white wine, shallots and parsley, or Tuna carpaccio with Wasabi mayo and herb salad (both £7.50). Mains tempt you with the Creelers seafood platter for 2, at £40, featuring an array of home cured and smoked fish and shellfish, but also, among the non-fish dishes, fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef with horseradish mash, baby carrots, and a red wine jus (£27.50, ouch). We are a little disappointed that the special of the day is farmed seabass.

The bread arrives:

Rustic, no variety but not too bad.

Here are our starters:

- Creeler’s fish cake (£6.25)

- Trio of own smoked and cured salmon (£7.25)

The fish cake (salmon and potatoes), comes pleasantly warm, looking more sautéed than deep fried, is nicely prepared. It’s moist, not soggy, softly pleasurable, with a right balance between fish and potatoes that satisfies demands for both flavour and texture. The piquant tang is correctly judged, and the accompanying salad, with very finely diced onions and peppery seeds, is very pleasant indeed.

The three salmons are nicely presented for a ‘trattoria’. The smoked one is quite rustic in style, a little harder than we are used to, but good. The other one, marinated, is exceptional. The one prepared in chunks offers very concentrated flavour. A lovely simple little dish.

Next, our mains:

- Panfried Hake with Stornoway black pudding and a tomato and smoked paprika sauce (£16.50)

- Seared West Coast King Scallops with creamed smoked haddock and leek (£18.50).

In the hake dish we encounter bold and gutsy flavours. The black pudding is ravishing for us, melting in the mouth, and the cooking of the hake is admirable. Woman thinks the paprika is a little too much, while Man, maybe fuelled by the paprika, violently disagrees, finding that the piquant hit perfectly suited to the character of the dish. They finally settle to agree that the chef has had overall a very good hand in this rustic dish.

And the scallops, once again, are cooked really well, with the smoked haddock chowder a great match, repeating the style of rich and strong but balanced flavours. We are very happy with the portion size, too.

(We accompanied all this with two portions of green veggies, cooked properly crispy, at £5.50).

Let’s go for desserts:

- Rice pudding (£5.25)

- Crème brulee (£6.25)

The pudding is well prepared, creamy and not stodgy: well, so Man says, fuelled by the almonds Woman violently disagrees, she does find it quite a tad too stodgy. The preserved cherries hidden inside are good but feel a little cloying, maybe some contrasting flavour would have be appropriate.

The crème brulee is excellent: here the fat cream is well contrasted by the passion fruit. And those crumbly shortbreads, and that chocolate-covered orange: how yummy and how much more interesting do they make this dish!

We didn’t drink wine but Arran Ale this time (2 pints at £7.50). Tap water is happily brought to your table, and only a 10% service charge is added. So we end up with a reasonable £80.85.

The service is young, friendly, cheerful. The only snag in the atmosphere were some very rowdy customers (who ended their dinner by removing a pole from somewhere and – kindergarten style - pretending to enhance their masculine attributes with them), and which underlines conclusively that this is not a ‘fine dining’ place. But at the same time it is very clear that in the Creeler’s kitchen there isn’t a McDonald hamburger flipper but a very respectable professional indeed, who is in full control of the strong flavours he wraps his dishes in, and who can cook the fish itself very sympathetically. So it happens that the good raw material is not simply put on the plate, but is prepared here even with some interesting culinary ideas, while still maintaining the character of rusticity and simplicity. We were happy that night at Creeler’s, and we suggest you take a try yourselves if you happen to be in the vicinities and are in a fishy mood.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Luigi Pomata

The day: 10th September 2008, Dinner.
The place: Viale Regina Margherita 18, Cagliari (Italy)
The venue: Ristorante and Cocktail bar Luigi Pomata

Closest airports: Cagliari (British Airways, EasyJet)
The food: Modern Italian/Sardinian, fusion
The drinks: Very strong on Sardinian wines, some national wines

Before we tell you about our fish eating in Edinburgh, we’ve got to tell you about our last Sardinian experience, at the restaurant of the great Luigi Pomata. What? You’ve never heard of Luigi Pomata? Tsk Tsk. You’d scandalise the staff of this restaurant, who as soon as you sit down ask you whether you’ve ever been there, and whether you are aware that this is (one of) the restaurants of ‘the great chef Luigi Pomata’…Oh really? Well, allow us to judge by ourselves, if you don’t mind. Before we start, we should point out that we are sure the great chef wasn’t there (the family has another chic venture in Carloforte).

The setting is simple, modern, with yellow/orange coloured runners on the table instead of tablecloths, a brick vault, neutral walls with bright paintings. The atmosphere aims at freshness, youth, buzz (it was indeed quite full and buzzing). Unfortunately the buzz comes at the cost of unusually small tables by Italian standards. And of noise, with noisy silly unpleasant music (what are we, on the beach?) as an obtrusive background.

The menu is characterised by the presence, beside more traditional items, of ‘susci’ dishes. The Italianate spelling is on purpose: as the menu dutifully explains, the great chef wants to suggest that he aims at a particular, personal interpretation of sushi. Sounds to us as if he just wants to defend himself in advance against any accusation of not serving proper sushi…Anyway, there are three susci menus, small, medium and large, at €16, €27 and €37, respectively. There is a lot of raw fish, either in bits, e.g. king prawn at €4, or a very impressive array of oyster varieties, with prices ranging from €43 to €13, or again fish carpaccio all’italiana, again in three sizes, at €20, €30 and €40 respectively. But then there is also a menu of more traditional Italian dishes, e.g. Aubergine parmigiana as a starter (€14), Spaghetti alla chitarra with smoked seafood (€12) among the pasta, and Beef tagliata (€14).

A rather impressive and unusual menu. While we peruse its delights, the bread arrives:

There are ciabatta bits, normal and with olives, a sesame roll, and plain. It’s not the best, being a little chewy.

For primi we choose:

- Orecchiette with tuna tartare, bottarga and cherry tomatoes (€13)

- ‘Artisan’ Fregola with lobster ragout, mussles and saffron (€14)

The bite of the orecchiette is not quite right. There is even the whiff of a suspicion that they have been reheated, but the thought is just too horrendous for us to contemplate: it must be just poor cooking. The tuna is good, and so are the cherry tomatoes: but these tomatoes, just cut in half and thrown there feel disconnected from the rest of the dish, which is dominated by the taste of the basil sauce. It’s really a tale of three unconnected dishes: orecchiette with ‘pesto’; tuna; and tomatoes. The individual flavours are pleasant, but the dish is certainly far from wowing, and does not hold together.

The fregola is a real letdown. It lacks flavour (and by then we had been used to the great, great fregola of Barbara), as does the seafood in it. Oh, come on! We are in Sardinia, and the great chef should be able to serve us a great fregola: what is this?

Let’s move the the mains:

- Fish of the day, in tomato croute and veloute’ of shellfish (€15)

- Small sushi combination (€16)

In the sushi (well, sorry, but if it is not sitting on rice, isn’t that sashimi?), the fish is very good, especially the tuna. The salmon is less good and succulent than, for example, at Kikuchi. We cannot make out the white ‘foil container’ for the rice (the black one is nori). We note with appreciation the high quality soy (Yamasa), naturally brewed, and the rice is OK, too. A good sushi/sashimi, but the great innovation value it must have for the locals a little lost on us. It’s just a good sushi (and sashimi ;) ).

The fish of the day turns out to be a seabass. The tomatoes are a joke, served roughly sliced with the hard bits still there.

The fish is fresh, though somehow it lacks flavour (farmed?). What saves this dish in terms of flavour is the excellent tomato sauce with very good olive oil. An awfully presented and just acceptable dish. When we enquire with the waiter about the tomatoes, he apologises and says that the ‘boys in the kitchen must be disciplined’. This is worrying.

And finally, we go for desserts:

- Moccaccino al cioccolato: crema di cappuccino, milk mousse, and fondente ice cream (€9)

- Pistachio ice cream, sweet olive oil froth, slivers of bitter chocolate (€9).

The pistachio icecream pleases with flavour but disappoints with texture (ice crystals there). Woman cannot taste the olive oil, Man claims he can, and he adds that he enjoys the subtle, delicate flavours dominated by the towering pistachio.

The moccaccino is, finally, a great offering, with its multilayered progression of textures. The ‘parfait’, so to say, is excellent, spongy and with superlative intense coffee taste. The cream above, fluid and slightly frothy, is a delight on the palate. The final texture is that of the excellent ice cream, even if once again, unfortunately, marred by the ice crystals.

The bill, with an excellent Vermentino Ruinas at €30 and tap water (voluntarily served) came at a very reasonable €106.

The service was generally informed, polite, young and efficient. What to say of the cuisine? You’ll have guessed already that for us this particular expression of great Chef Luigi Pomata was a disappointment. We can see some signs of greatness there: the selection of materials is impressive and the menu is original. But the execution of the dishes is often quite depressing, and some materials in the end are not of the quality one expects (the lobster in the fregola, the seabass). All the hallmarks are there of a commercial operation set up by a talented but absentee chef who plays on his name and cannot control what the kitchen does (at least we hope this is the case –please tell us that you weren’t there, that you didn’t let those bland flavours go by your pass!). It’s reasonable food at reasonable value, but not good enough compared to the expectations created.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

'Antipasti di mare' at Lillicu

What is an antipasto? If you come to Lillicu, a traditional and long established Cagliari restaurant (we went to via Dei Carroz 14 in Cagliari, tel +39-070-502959, although the main venue is considered to be the one in Via Sardegna 78, still in Cagliari, tel +39-070-652970), don’t expect one of those penurious oh so pretty micro amuse bouche that sometimes begin your starvation in Michelin starred establishments. Here at Lillico, a mixed fish starter is something for real men (and women):


Cozze (i.e.mussles) marinara, succulent, yummissime.

And this:

Tuna ‘Scabeccio’, where sweet and sour marry harmoniously, with great tomatoes, and behind, a different combination of tuna and tomato, in excellent olive oil.

And this:

‘Gianchetti’, baby fish, fried in the lightest of batters and with utmost delicacy – a real cooking lesson to some pretentious restaurants we know of.

And this:

More delicious cozze and a most tender and flavoursome and fresh octopus.

Not satisfied yet? Well there is also this:

Prawns presented in a scallop shell and garnished with béchamel sauce.

This, ladies and gentleman, is an antipasto in a traditional, basic Italian trattoria.

To fuel our gigantic amounts of swimming we need gigantic amounts of food. So we don’t stop there. We also have

A fregola:

Tasty, not at the same level as Da Barbara but almost, and this is a big compliment.

And also a mixed grill (we asked for a reduced portion…)

It’s a cernia chunk, a squid, and king prawns: all local, all fresh, all cooked perfectly, all delicious.

Want to clean your mouth after all this fish?

Here is a bite of vegetables:

And now, really, there’s only room for a coffee.

The cost of all this, including house wine, €70. Lillicu is a very basic place where you should not take your poshest friends who wish to stay away form the inferior classes: only come with people who enjoy real, great, flavoursome seafood.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Da Barbara (Solanas, Cagliari)

The day: 8th September 2008, Dinner.
The place: Solanas, Strada Provinciale per Villasimius (Cagliari), Italy (tel. +39 - 070 750 630)
The venue: Ristorante da Barbara
Closest airports: Cagliari (British Airways, EasyJet)
The food: traditional fish trattoria
The drinks: reasonable list, mostly local.

Weird address, you may wonder, and indeed it is no proper address, since this place is along the panoramic road that from Cagliari winds eastwards towards Villasimius, offering breathtaking views of the amazingly beautiful turquoise and emerald waters and white beaches that grace the island of Sardinia. Exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures (where have we heard this recently?), so exceptionally here's a non-food photo:

Indeed, though it is just outside the little hamlet of Solanas, which consists almost completely in summer houses, it is the only restaurant you will find along the road for a few kilometres in each direction. Confidently, in we go. Well, it does not work like that: althought it is still relatively early (just after 8 pm, a few minutes after opening time), and the place is fully booked? Without a booking, your choice is to either hang around for a couple of hours waiting for somebody to finish their dinner and go, or decide to plan better next time, and book well in advance. Which is what we do, so next time in our expectations are set pretty high!

Alas we cannot show you any pictures of the interior, as the place was so packed we could not even squeeze in a corner which was human free – but it is a very traditional family run trattoria, with proper clean and ironed tablecloth, and big tables – space not much of an issue here. Granny Barbara looks on from pictures on the wall, and you can pretty much recognise her features in both waiting and kitchen staff.

Here is the bread:

Delightful pane carasau (flatbread). The menu has no surprises, in the sense that you find listed here what you would find on any other menu in a local trattoria: among antipasti, the usual suspects are mixed seafood antipasti, seafood salad, clams and mussels, mosciame di tonno, and the like. Among primi, the ubiquitous fregola, or spaghetti with clams, or king prawns, while mains would include the fish of the day, but a quick glance at the fish counter is better than wasting time perusing the usual list of cuttlefish, bass, bream, tuna and so on.

So, we decide to begin with:

- seafood salad (€8)

- fregola with arselle (clams), mussels and bottarga (€8.50)

The seafood salad was gorgeous: the fishy bit consisting of thoroughly enjoyable, superfresh prawns and tender octopus, with some salad tomatoes, all doused in a very perfumed and delicate olive oil, with a hint of lemon and the nicely refreshing taste of the thinly sliced celery and carrots.

The fregola, indicated as house specialty, was obviously home made. Imagine a super coarse cous cous (with which fregola share a similar technology’), which is then dried out in the oven a bit (before boiling), so that some of it acquires a slightly brown colour. The bottarga, not in slivers but grated, was not very prominent, perhaps overpowered by the shellfish: the clams and the mussels were superb, and the fregola was infused with their flavour. Definitely deserving to be highlighted as a speciality.

Next, a super spigola (seabass), large enough to be made into chunks and then grilled (at €5 per 100g).

Perhaps the picture is not revealing of the scale, but this baby weighed two pounds – so €45 it was, and very well worth every cent of it. We had never had a spigola first chopped and then grilled like this, and indeed we can confirm that this is a very acceptable way to cook it when it comes this big, although the flesh was perhaps less moist than it could have been. The unanticipated bonus for us of this way of cooking, is that it is easy to reach all those parts of the flesh in the head that are otherwise fiddly to tease out. This was obviously very fresh and above all wild fish (we felt like we had offended them by asking if it was farmed, how could we suspect such a crime?!), which carried with it all the flavour of the sea, simply beautiful.

By now we were quite satisfied, but could we leave the seadas go, at €4 each? Of course not:

One each to avoid quarrels, these must be among the best we ever had. The fresh pecorino cheese inside just of the right saltiness to challenge the sweetness of the honey, and the pastry was excellent, flaky in the right degree, perfectly fried. Stunning.

With €2 cover charge per head and a bottle of local Vermentino at €16 (recommended by the waiter), our total bill came at €89.50, that is roughly €60 for the two of us. For such an amount of fish, and of such quality, to people used to London prices, it sounds almost like a joke. Really very honest, as the fish price is not marked up too much on what you would pay at the central market in Cagliari.

The waiting staff was superb, especially for this type of traditional establishment: six people serving around 150 covers efficiently, speedily and still finding the time to check whether everything is going fine for you, and even engaging in polite conversation at the till. Solidly family run, the young guys, all reassuringly pale from working their socks off inside while scores of their friends beach bum, are obviously trying to move this place to the next level. This is indeed a pleasing feature: a restaurant based on tradition, offering traditional dishes cooking techniques, but with a front room that is run in a modern way. Scores of customers come here from very trendy Villasimius, some no doubt stepping out of their luxurious yacht to indulge in the simplicity of the family style cooking of excellent materials.

Should you ever come this way (o yes, you should!), make sure you pay a visit to Da Barbara in Solanas (and caeful: do not confuse it with Santa Barbara nearby, also OK but deifnitely not quite at this level).

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