Congenial hubris

Spouse and I first visited The Sheep Heid Inn at the end of a long walk with Spawn, through Holyrood Park in near total darkness. It was the Saturday before November 5, and we’d been planning to climb Arthur’s Seat for a view of any fireworks that might be going off, but low cloud and heavy mist changed our minds. A lack of torches and appropriate footwear also contributed to our decision to walk around Duddingston Loch instead — although we did see a few fireworks along the way as it turned out. Rounding the end of the Loch, we came out into Duddingston Village, a rural hamlet that was absorbed by the expanding city to become one of its most picturesque districts, and stopped off in the Sheep Heid for a pint, before finding a bus back to the city centre. It sits at the end of a street whose every house is the embodiment of cosiness, and with its sturdy rural physique and the tiny lights of its bay windows, the pub continues this theme. Spawn was already familiar with the place, as she has a uni friend from Duddingston, and told us it had a very good reputation as a gastropub — we found it smart but very comfortable and welcoming, and filed it under ‘places we’d like to put a few drinks away and have a meal’. This we have now done.

We’re familiar with smart gastropubs. We’ve had two in our village: although they’ve taken it in turns to maintain a high standard in the kitchen, they have both had periods of real excellence. The menu at the Sheep Heid seemed to be cut from the same cloth, and it had us all salivating and planning a series of return visits. The standard pub fare was on offer, but slabs of whole or minced herbivore were in their own sections, and the list of mains was an imaginative one. I started with seared scallops served with cauliflower, and followed it with a roast rack of lamb, while Spouse and Spawn both opted for a king prawn gratin followed by pork belly and cheek with scallops.

The stars of my starter were the two iterations of cauliflower: two crisp/soft spiced tempura florets, and a roasted cauliflower puree. These would have made a good vegetarian starter on their own, and were absolutely as good as you could expect in a mid-price gastropub. My four scallops were less pleasing. They were small, far from succulent, had no coral, and if they had been seared it had been done in such a way as to not colour them at all. Also, one of them had an unidentifiable, but very bitter flavour running through it. Spouse and Spawn were happy with the flavour of their prawn gratins, but there was little or no sauce and too many breadcrumbs.

My main was better – in fact it was excellent for the most part, with two neatly trimmed pairs of cutlets cooked more or less how I like lamb to be cooked — which is to say not quite as pink as it’s often presented. It was tender, sweet and flavoursome, and its accompaniments were toothsome, other than the over-seasoned cavolo nero, which was extremely salty. It came with about the right amount of red wine jus on the plate, and for no clear reason a small copper pot containing about five times as much again. It was also dressed with a green chimichurri, which was completely swamped by the other elements on the plate, and might as well have not been there. Spawn and Spouse enjoyed their pork, but both reported they’d have liked more on the plate, and their scallops were as disappointing as those in my starter — Spawn had precisely one-and-a-half on her plate. As it was possible to order this dish without the scallops we were able to observe that this paltry allotment of bivalves accounted for nearly a quarter of the cost.

For dessert Spouse and I had rum baba (something I’d not eaten, or seen on a menu, for many years), and Spawn ordered something called a ‘flamed’ Alaska. The Alaska was well executed, she reported, but perhaps poorly designed, as it lacked any element of heat to contrast with the ice cream, a contrast she had been anticipating with some pleasure. The rum baba was sweet, with a moist sponge, somewhat desultory cherries, and unforgivably, an almost total lack of any boozy punch — just a hint of rum flavour (which Spouse was unable to detect at all). This is a dessert whose entire identity is founded on its fiercely indulgent alcohol content, and what we were served was a wet sponge with cherries, kirsch and cream.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I wouldn’t recommend the Sheep Heid. In fact, I’ll probably be back at some point (in disguise, after posting this), but I’ll stick to pub standards, like burgers and chocolate brownies. The beer was well-kept, the waiters were friendly and solicitous, and the atmosphere was snugly congenial (plus it has a proper skittles alley). But the menu’s ambition exceeded its execution, and we got the impression (having experienced this effect in both of our village’s pubs) that the head chef who designed it may have moved on, to be succeeded by a less sure-footed cook. The prices are in the middle of gastropub territory, and Edinburgh is an expensive city overall, but the cost of our meal would justify much higher expectations than the kitchen was able to match.

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