'Irresistibly French': Joanna Blythman reviews L'Escargot Blanc for the Sunday Herald
(review published 22 November 2015)
Read on Sunday Herald website
17 Queensferry Street, Edinburgh
0131 226 1890
Lunch: £11.90/£13.90 Dinner: £22-£42
Food rating: 9/10
There's nothing to make you feel quite as blessed as eating in a warm, wonderful restaurant surrounded by similarly happy diners while the rain buckets down outdoors, my experience precisely at L'Escargot Blanc. I was there to check out its new ground floor Bar à Vin, which specialises in platters of cured meats and cheeses. Had the weather been clement I would have been delighted to eat here; this isn't the usual straight-from-the-fridge humdrum selection of lacklustre EU salamis and un-astounding commercial cheeses. Nope, chef-patron Fred Berkmiller is a tireless advocate for everything authentically artisan. So the cheeses are supplied by the renowned Lyonnais affineur, Hervé Mons, who has fought alongside the international Slow Food movement to defend raw (unpasteurised) milk cheeses against creeping standardisation and misguided restrictions based on spurious health concerns.
But on this day the magnetic pull of hot food up the narrow staircase to the L'Escargot Blanc proper was irresistible. It's no secret that this is one of the more reliable places to eat in Edinburgh, but such is Berkmiller's enthusiasm for ingredients that are small-scale, seasonal, etcetera, that like a well-curated cheese, this restaurant only keeps improving. So much spraff is spoken about sourcing in the service of marketing, but few demonstrate his boundless commitment to the real thing. Who, for instance, would bother to fly to Barra on a twin-prop plane to check out its snails? A Frenchman in search of the edible, naturellement. I'd recommend reading his blog on the subject on the restaurant website: “slightly salty with faint traces of iodine, they tasted of the land that produced them”. It's well-written, evocative, and heartfelt.
What's most charming in the restaurant is that the front of house team clearly share Berkmiller's mission. Our waiter clucked with approval when we ordered the said snails, the product of “un long procédé [procedure]” involving purging, cleaning, re-cleaning, he explained, but I can vouch that the end product was truly worth the effort, the crustaceans as tender as mushrooms, their mineral, bosky flavour cocooned in butter spiked with garlic, herbs, cured ham and Pastis under the most delicate crust of gratinated “chapelure” (dried breadcrumbs). These snails must be candidates for Scotland's most arcane, yet thoroughly worthwhile restaurant dish.
And pretty much everything else at L'Escargot Blanc captivates and pleases. Soft slices of home-made black pudding (using duck blood) with cubes of soft fat glowing like diamonds in it, served with a swooning melt of mellow Roscoff onions and golden sultanas where the vinegar was in attendance, but held in check. “Chou farci”: stuffed cabbage, literally, but in reality made into more of a glorious vegetable bridie, a fruitful liaison of Savoy, squash, mushrooms and oozing cheese in an impeccable pastry jacket, the latter in textural terms somewhere between brioche and shortcrust.
I had to remind myself that I don't even like steak when I tentatively sampled a mouthful of the fine-grained PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) rib-eye of Orkney beef. It was just so winningly tender and bloodily delicious under its café au lait-coloured sauce, deep with mustard, sweet with those amazing Breton onions, and fresh with tarragon. It went so well with its stiff potato purée and a glass of biodynamic Cotes du Rhone full of the life force of well-tended soil. Side vegetables were a cut above the norm: steamed carrots, celeriac, and romanesco doused with heaps of butter. As we all know, butter makes already very good things even better. And this is the place to order the classic green salad, a preponderance of soft leaves (lamb's lettuce, parsley, watercress, heart from flat lettuce) glossy with beautifully balanced vinaigrette.
Dessert – pear clafoutis with marginally too fondant fruit, and a batter too in-your-face with vanilla – was for once eclipsed by the handpicked cheese: some stunning Tomme from the Pyrenees, and a gorgeous farmhouse Morbier, a cheese made in two stages with evening and morning milks segregated by a thin charcoal line. Both were served correctly, at room temperature. L'Escargot Blanc's website promises “a lively French atmosphere, a down-to-earth welcome with hearty food in an unpretentious setting”, which is undeniably true, but circumspectly modest.