Oh flower of Scotland, I'm staying at the Balmoral, a grand, tartan tea-towel of a place straddling Waverley Station, with views towards Arthur's Seat and the Castle. At least two of my childhood friends spent their honeymoon here back in the days when it was still called the North British. They had the hurried white wedding, took the train twenty odd miles in from the countryside, climbed the stairs from the station to the hotel and stayed one night. Then did the same journey in reverse - back home to the spare room to wait for their seventeenth birthday, or the baby, which usually came first.
Whether I escaped the same fate from luck or better birth control I'll never know but here I am, decades later, in a corner suite with sweeping, panoramic views of floodlit Edinburgh. I'm alone. A shame because the suite has a marble bathroom and a tub which, in true Station hotel tradition is big enough to swim laps in. Or to entertain friends. All this, and dinner too.
We ate in Number One, a spacious red lacquered room in the basement which feels like eating in a box of Milk Tray. You expect it to be full of faux Chinoiserie, but instead there are semi-circular gold plush banquettes which are less unpleasant than they sound. We'll assume the same about the man on my right who half way through the evening asked 'what shade' my husband was. He, at least, didn't seem to find the question offensive.
Apart from that particular nut, the other customers were mostly soft, Scottish centres. A pleasure given my own well upholstered proportions. If I'd worn my orange velvet dress someone might have sat on me, or at least plumped me up..
The restaurant claims to specialise in the creative treatment of Scottish dishes. Not having overly fond memories of creative food, Edinburgh style (an 'individual cheesecake' made from tinned fruit, Philadelphia and a MacVities digestive biscuit leaps unbidden from the dusbin of my mind) I almost shudder at the thought. But there's nothing here to scare the kilties milling around the hotel lobby in full highland dress. The Market Menu - at £35 - is still pretty pricey for people who like to push a penny a far as it will go and not especially local in provenance. Instead both this and the a la carte have done what Scots have always done and just emigrated, though forget Canada and Australia and just think Europe - Scotch beef with a Burguignonne Sauce, Osso Bucco with foie gras and Scallops with gazpacho. Well what would you have the poor chef do? Boil mince?
I had some of the native scallops with the gazpacho. Though more for summer than a dark driech winter evening it had such clean, simple flavours that you couldn't blame it for being optimistic. Others enjoyed the Duck foie gras and confit terrine with prune and armagnac jus, or another summery dish - crab avocado and aratichoke gateau.
To follow I had roast partridge. One diner announced that he didn't want the Madeira jus - 'nasty, thick brown stuff like Bovril', he said which sounds like home cooking to me. I had both and can vouch for the Madeira jus being none of the above and sparse enough not to kill the simplicity of the partridge. The accompanying potato, celeriac and swede tian, however, I could have lived without. There was nothing wrong with it, but like all those men running around upstairs in the Ferrero Rocher-style tartan fest - it was too self-conscious and quite unnecessary. Similarly the foie gras. It pops up all over the place even when not mentioned on the menu. It's like my husband. I absolutely adore him but it's nice to know when he plans to make an appearance.
For pudding I had Cranachan - a concoction similar to syllabub - whisky, whipped cream and honey but with the addition of sorbet and berries, again out of season. It arrived in a little praline box which I'm sure you're not supposed to eat, though I did. Every bit.
I liked it but would have been glad to see a good old Athol Brose with toasted oats without any frills. Similarly the haggis and stovies I tried in the brasserie next day were gussied up beyond recognition. The haggis a cylindrical arrangement of indifferent potato, watery neeps and sloppy haggis was disappointing. The stovies, usually a dish of potato, onion and meat which even at its best isn't great, had been fried it up and put on an oatcake. It was truly terrible. .
Some things you shouldn't mess with. The kilt however, is not one of them. What is it about men in skirts? Tradition, schmadition - they're all twirling about there in their pleats like ballroom dancers. The Japanese and American tourists must think they've died and gone to Hibernian Heaven - the Disneyland of the north.
It's all fair and fine - this ode to haggis and the dead Scottish poet's society that is Burn's night. But please do wear something underneath your kilt, chaps. The cold weather does nothing for your ego.