Good food - fair price

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Dining on a budget should not be limited to eating cheap food amid dire surroundings. Restaurateur David Ramsden, formerly of (fitz)Henry and Rogue, and now working with The Outsider and Apartment restaurants in Edinburgh, sees value for money options growing. Barry Shelby caught up with him.

Barry Shelby During the festive season, lots of restaurants - though not The Outsider or Apartment - put on special menus, which are typically pricier. What’s your view of that?

David Ramsden Restaurants know they can get away with it. They also think the public want a Christmas offer and, because they’re doing what they believe the public want, they’ll probably raise their prices. It’s a two or three week period in which menus undergo significant changes. There is a similar psychology that goes on during
the Festival.

BS Do restaurateurs have it right? Is there that much demand for special menus and party atmosphere?

DR The good thing about the commercial arena is that there must be a spectrum. So, there’s everything from nothing at all to a scene that is completely crazy, where everyone’s wearing hats and eating rubbish trade-up turkey and pre-roasted chipolatas, etc.

BS Now, it’s January, what does the restaurateur do to lure in custom during a down time?

DR Both The Apartment and Outsider continue to do well. It isn’t really an issue we have to confront with too much vigour.

BS But you have brought some changes, no?

DR Beginning in the latter part of 2006, we introduced two new menus in each unit: brunch at the weekend, and one for lunch, Monday to Saturday. We’ve made a real effort to keep them in the slightly wacky, off-piste flavour of the à la carte menu. But we’ve also ensured that it provided better value for money. During the day, we have halved the prices (compared with what people expect to pay for a main course during the evening).

BS Is it working?

DR The business is in the very lucky situation where it can rely on the evening trade alone. So, we can experiment at lunchtime to try and find another way of delivering satisfaction to our customers. I believe The Outsider and Apartment have lost some of their initial customer base and I would like to see us win them back.

BS Isn’t it inevitable that people move on?

DR I don’t think it need be, I really don’t. I go back to my experience in London at Caprice, a restaurant that was developing its trade every week of every month of every year. And yet its core customer base had remained the same virtually since it opened [in 1981].

BS But surely there are trends?

DR I personally felt The Outsider and The Apartment were beginning to become slightly above themselves. We want to be very careful that we don’t almost throw out the baby with the bath water. In business terms, there are basic principles [of brand building] that one should pay some attention to: not deviating from what got them successful in the first place. This is an issue that [owner] Malcolm Innes and I enjoyably butt heads about.

BS In the early days, when the Parliament was up the street, the Outsider attracted all types. I saw Ross Finnie nursing wounds during a difficult patch when he might be sacked from the cabinet.

DR Well, today, the Bishop of Edinburgh is here somewhere. I must say hello to him. What’s great about The Outsider and the Apartment is that they are far more about being consumer conscious as opposed to wishing to lead the consumer. Malcolm had no preconceptions and put together a menu that was almost slavishly different in terms of there being no starters, the skewers or brochette or CHLs, as they’re called, and the random combinations of textures and flavours that most people in the know would have said: ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ And the public took it to their bosoms. It appealed to a new wave of inexperienced diner: some place where there were no rules.

But I still believe the fundamental truth was the price point. It was so frighteningly good value, dare I say cheap. It just became too big too fast.

BS The trick is to put something on the plate that is both value for money and interesting.

DR Again, that’s the point we keep coming back to in this conversation. When I started in June, there were dishes on this menu that were £13 or £14. I said: ‘Malcolm, stop and pull it back.’ Malcolm was on this trajectory where he was aiming towards fine dining, towards that market where you’re spending between £14 and £20 on a main course. It would have compromised all the principles on which this business was founded. I think he now agrees.

BS Prices are often based on food on the plate, but people are interested in the entire experience, as well. Was there a risk of changing the character?

DR Totally. Price will dictate people’s behaviour. The more they’re paying, the higher their expectations, the greater their demands of the environment, the more snotty they can become. If they’re paying less, then they are much more relaxed. They whole thing goes back down to a more enjoyable environment.

BS Most people are not gourmands, after all. They want to leave feeling they’ve had a good time, which has more to do with staff, character, the buzz of the place.

DR That’s 100% correct. That was what The Outsider and, particularly, The Apartment, were all about. There was a great atmosphere and a different environment. The food looked like nothing they had ever had, but the taste was less important. The wine came to the table already uncorked. It was a brand new way of going out. That’s what we need to get it back to, to some extent, because that’s what people enjoy: the experience.

BS To broaden the conversation, how does the public ensure getting value for money?

DR There are so many ways to skin a cat. What the public should be looking for is some confidence that the food being offered at that low price point is at least fresh produce. I can say, with my hand on my heart, that at The Outsider and The Apartment, all the food is fresh. There is a ruthless principle, almost unnecessarily in my opinion, of never using anything frozen.

BS Bigger cities seem to offer more opportunities for money-saving meals, as long as you know where to go.

DR Relatively speaking, it exists in the same percentage here. But what we are seeing is a tangible movement towards value. For example, if you look at Gordon Ramsay’s latest foray, it is into pubs. They may be glossy and shiny, but it shows there is quite a lot of diversification down the market chain. One of the remarkable success stories of the recent past has been Leon. I hesitate to give anyone else a name check but it has been such an eye opener. It is putting main courses on the table in central London for around £5. That’s all about down scaling and accepting that the best market to go for is the value for money market.

Best on a budget

(average two-course evening meals for £15 or less)

GLASGOW

Ad Lib (North American)
111 Hope Street, City Centre
0141 248 6645, www.babygrandgroup.com
The original Ad Lib is a bar and restaurant rolled into one compact space. The menu highlights a small but diverse range of burgers with a selection of fillings and relish.

Balbir’s (Indian)
7 Church Street, West End
0141 339 7711
Located on Church Street in a cavernous premise that somehow manages to maintain a sense of intimacy, Balbir’s opened in 2005, offering innovation, home-style and contemporary Indian cuisine, using fresh ingredients and substituting ghee with low-cholesterol rapeseed oil. First-time diners might try the banquet for two, which comprises three starters and three main courses.

Bar Gandolfi (Bar & Pub Food)
64 Albion Street, Merchant City
0141 552 4462, www.cafegandolfi.com
Above the landmark street-level brasserie, Bar Gandolfi is becoming a Merchant City heavyweight in its own right with its Scottish-continental cuisine: savoury smoked salmon pâté served with oatcakes or the Stornoway white pudding with apple and crispy onions.

Battlefield Rest (Italian)
55 Battlefield Road, Southside
0141 636 6955, www.battlefieldrest.co.uk
Those not in the mood for excellent meat and fish dishes can choose instead from a good selection of pizza and pasta dishes - or share a bit of both with a dining companion.

Café Hula (Café)
321 Hope Street, City Centre
0141 353 1660, www.cafehula.com
Across from the Theatre Royal, Café Hula has established a reputation for the sort of warm, pose-free eating that’s increasingly too rare in the city centre. The evening fare is the sort of satisfying stuff best mopped up with a wedge of just-baked bread.

Grassroots Café (Vegetarian)
93–97 St Georges Road, West End
0141 333 0534, www.grassroots.co.uk
A welcoming atmosphere combined with an imaginative meat-free menu attract a mix of customers. Dishes offer tastes from around the globe, whether Moroccan, Italian or Thai. Plus there are classics such as veggie bangers ’n’ mash or the Grassroots burger.

Kokuryo (Far East Fusion)
1138 Argyle Street, West End
0141 334 5566
Kokuryo is Scotland’s first (and only, as far as we know) restaurant devoted entirely to Korean cuisine. Many ingredients and techniques may resemble those in Chinese and Japanese recipes, but Korean food packs a unique punch due largely to kimchi, the signature pickled cabbage. Gentler dishes include comforting potato pancakes, steamed fish and barbecued beef wrapped in cooling lettuce leaves.

Miso (Japanese)
57 West Regent Street, City Centre
0141 333 0133, www.barmiso.com
More of a bar-that-serves-food than a fully-fledged restaurant, Miso’s menu is more ambitious than all but the most ‘gastro’ of gastropubs. There’s a sushi, noodles and the bento box - a kind of Happy Meal for adults - which offers a selection of fish or meat, with salad, rice, vegetables and tempura.

Stravaigin 2 (Bistros & Brasseries)
8 Ruthven Lane, West End
0141 334 7165, www.stravaigin.com
We could just as easily tip the café/bar on Gibson Street, but this outlet in the Stravaigin family is one of the West End’s best loved fixtures. It is justifiably known for awesome burgers (featuring Scotch beef as well as ostrich or Thai chicken) that would satisfy Morgan ‘Supersize Me’ Spurlock.

The Wee Curry Shop (Indian)
7 Buccleuch Street, City Centre
0141 353 0777
The clutter of tables and chairs gives a feeling of true informality. There is a bit more room at the other outlet in Ashton Lane, but not much. The menus are equally compact, but every dish shines with some quality that sets it apart from the rest. Curries are made to order.

EDINBURGH

Barioja (Spanish)
19 Jeffrey Street, Old Town
0131 557 3622
Arguably the most stylish tapas bar in Scotland, it has slightly eclipsed its elder sibling Iggs next door, in line with the public mood for more casual dining. The menu changes regularly and newly sourced house wines from the Somantano region include a quite delicious tinto.

Chop Chop (Chinese)
248 Morrison Street, West End
0131 221 1155
Owner and chef Jian Wong is a prize-winning dumpling maker with her own factory in Liberton. So Chop Chop, with its bright yellow and red façade, naturally specialises in dumplings with an array of fillings: pork with celery, coriander or chives, beef and turnip (surprisingly good). There are also five types of noodles dishes.

David Bann’s Vegetarian Restaurant (Vegetarian)
56–58 St Mary’s Street, Old Town
0131 556 5888, www.davidbann.com
The experience of eating meat-free here is as far removed as possible from the mung bean carpet and hemp wine stereotypes. Subtle lighting at night is perfect for a flirtatious meeting of herbivore minds and the food is distractingly good should any romance go sour.

La Favorita (Italian)
325-331 Leith Walk, Leith
0131 554 2430, www.la-favorita.com
Brightly lit and spacious, the atmosphere is convivial. Dishes are notable for their innovative melding of ingredients. La Favorita’s major selling point, however, is its pizzas, whose the crispy bases are enhanced by an delightfully smoky flavour from the wood-fired oven.

First Coast (Bistros & Brasseries)
97-101 Dalry Road, West End
0131 313 4404, www.first-coast.co.uk
We recently got word that the pre-theatre menu throughout January will be available all night long. But the normal à la carte costs won’t break many dining out budgets, either.

The Lunch Box (Indian)
50 Potterrow, Southside
No phone
Not the most likely place for quality dining as this is located around the back of Edinburgh’s Central Mosque, but it is one of the city’s hidden gems for extraordinary inexpensive midday meals. The choice of dishes is generally limited to two meat and two vegetarian options, such as mild chicken or lamb curries, a dense spinach and potato dish or lentil dhal. Wrap up if planning a pit stop prior to spring, however, as seating is outdoors (albeit covered).

The Outsider (Bistros & Brasseries )
15/16 George IV Bridge, Old Town
0131 226 3131
Maybe it’s the views towards the castle, the eye-candy waiting staff or reasonable prices, but there can be few places offering such laid-back dining in central Edinburgh. The main menu offers a selection designed for sharing, whether as informal starters and main course mix-ups.

Shushiya (Japanese)
19 Dalry Road, West End
0131 313 3222, www.sushiya.co.uk
Pop in for sushi or a bowl of edamame (freshly steamed green soya beans), washed down with a Japanese beer. The fish is sourced daily from the market in Glasgow, so the raw ingredients in sashimi are ultra fresh. A shining Eastern star come to light up the west.

Posh for less

Here are the fixed-price lunch prices at some of the top rated restaurants in Glasgow and Edinburgh, offering significant savings over standard à la carte meals.

GLASGOW

Brian Maule at Chardon d’Or (French)
176 West Regent Street, City Centre, 0141 248 3801, www.brianmaule.com
Two courses for £14.50

Gamba (Fish)
225a West George Street, City Centre, 0141 572 0899, www.gamba.co.uk
Two courses for £15.95

Michale Caines at ABode (French)
129 Bath Street, City Centre, 0141 572 6011, www.michaelcaines.com
Two courses for £12.50

Ubiquitous Chip (Scottish)
12 Ashton Lane, West End, 0141 334 5007, www.ubiquitouschip.co.uk
Two courses with coffee and sweetmeats £22.80

EDINBURGH

Atrium (Scottish)
10 Cambridge Street. West End
0131 228 8882, www.atriumrestaurant.co.uk
Two courses for £13.50

Kitchin (Scottish)
78 Commercial Quay, Leith
0131 555 1755, www.thekitchin.com
Two courses for £15.50

Plumed Horse (French)
50–54 Henderson Street, Leith
0131 554 5556, www.plumedhorse.co.uk
Two courses for £19.50

Restaurant Martin Wishart (French)
54 The Shore, Leith, 0131 553 3557, www.martin-wishart.co.uk
Three courses for £20.50

Working lunch


It’s New Year. Time for a lunchtime revolution. Let’s kick the uninspiring meal deals and mayonnaise-padded sandwiches into touch. Allan Radcliffe reports on the Great Lunch Experiment.

Lunch can be a rushed affair, that precious hour or half hour of down time all too often descending into a mad dash to the local supermarket or chemist chain to shell out cash you can ill afford on unpleasant meal deals, composed of chilly sandwiches, sugary drinks, crisps and chocolate bars.

We at The List wondered whether it would actually be cheaper, healthier and more sociable to pool lunch funds among our colleagues, buy good quality ingredients and take it in turns to make a midday meal of any shape or size for the whole group.

Each member of our intrepid, five-strong team was charged with bringing in two items each to contribute to the feast. The menu included one large Italian peasant loaf, Parma ham, dolcelatte and mozzarella, sunblush tomatoes, olives with pesto, artichokes and avocado. The total cost of the meal was £20.82, which works out at £4.20 per head, but this included the bread, a full 250g pack of butter and a large box of juicy Clementines, all of which could be used up over a number of days.

The advantages to such a scheme are self-evident: the food tastes better and is free from preservatives and additives. Participants can bulk buy, in the sense of purchasing large loaves, blocks of cheese, even a whole ham, which can be frozen or cut up and used over the course of a whole week. There’s little or no unnecessary packaging and it’s far easier to focus on seasonal vegetables. Also, this might be one of the precious few times in your life when you actually get to sit down and have a conversation with your esteemed colleagues and friends. The one clear drawback to laying your carefully acquired wares and provisions out on the staffroom table and tucking in is that it’s difficult to know when to stop. The moral? Perhaps modest portions are the way forward if an afternoon of snoozing and a lack of productivity is to be avoided.

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