High Georgian ceilings, above vast, perfectly proportioned sash windows, speak to me of cosy home comfort. Wherever I am, if I can look up and past my surroundings to that kind of a backdrop, I’m back in toddler-hood, lazing in that delicious torpor of the up-too-late surrounded by noisy, kindly, drunken adults. This is not because I was raised with the wealth and entitlement that can own the title deeds to such interiors, but because I had the greater privilege to spend some of my youngest years living in squats in central London, at a time when such houses were unloved and frequently uninhabited. The inevitably dusty, usually slightly scuffed plasterwork of those high, airy rooms casts a spell on me. At several points during the meal I recently shared with Spouse and Spawn at The Outsider on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh I found myself rising above the spectacularly chatty ambience to water my roots in the inverted wellspring of its handcrafted plafond.
The Outsider is a mid-priced, hearty modern grub joint, which walks with the swagger of a fine dining establishment. Its welcome is extended quickly and warmly, and gives the clear impression that this is an operation which believes in doing things properly. As soon as the maître d’ had established that he could seat us he whisked our coats away to the basement, from which he would produce them at the end of our meal. Service thereafter was briskly attentive, with waiting staff that knew the menu well and conducted themselves impeccably, in an elegantly geometric, dimly-lit space, decorated with enough of a twist on the modern dining playbook to register a distinct impression on the memory.
‘Enough of a twist’ is actually a pretty good summary of The Outsider’s schtick. Dining is theatre, and all the contextual signals that ensure a meal will be registered in the ways that the restaurateur intends have been carefully planned here. The menu itself is not far from typical gastro-pub fare, which is also a good guide to the pricing, but there is a spin on every dish which harmonises with the front-of-house approach to offer an experience which feels particular to this restaurant. Even my flatiron steak (I’m really starting to bore myself with my menu choices lately) came with shallot and green peppercorn butter, and an Italian style salad — nothing radical there, but enough of a twist for me to remember it. The chunky chips were a tasty comfort, and the entire plate was prepared so as to warrant no criticisms at all (beyond the inherent tedium and ethical bankruptcy of steak and chips).
Spawn began with chargrilled octopus, which she enjoyed, speaking highly of the garnish of Jerusalem artichoke purée and chorizo jam, while Spouse made no complaints about her brandy and pork rillettes—although she seemed slightly nonplussed by the accompanying caperberries. My opening act was a grilled sardine, which was delicious, rich with the self-fried umami that oily fish possess only when they’re really fresh, its flesh flaking like sticky rice. It was dressed with red pepper relish, scurvy-grass aioli, pickled cucumber, and two charcoal biscuits. The charcoal biscuits harmonised well enough with the other flavours, and their black hexagons were striking on the plate, but they felt a bit superfluous—especially since they were recognisably Fudge’s, which I often buy, and I’m sure I paid a lot more for these two than I usually do. Otherwise it was a well-balanced plate, and did its job as an hors d’oeuvre, priming me nicely for my main.
Spawn and Spouse both followed up with moules-frites, the mussels cooked with cream, bacon, pine-nuts and parmesan, and the the frites appropriately thin and crispy. I grabbed a couple of mouthfuls of Spawn’s frites, and both gave a good report of the mussels. Spawn concluded her meal with lemon sorbet and frozen vodka, a reliable and classic combination. I had some kind of dessert, and I must have enjoyed it, or I’d remember complaining, but it can’t have been that memorable, as it’s vanished from the mnemonic record now, and it definitely wasn’t any of the dishes handwritten onto the menu when I last checked The Outsider’s website.
Our choices represent our own lack of imagination, not the restaurant’s, as there were quite a number of creative and inventive dishes on the menu. We were a couple of days on from a somewhat disappointing meal at an Edinburgh gastropub, and I think we were all craving the posh pub-grub done well that we’d been denied there. The Outsider did an excellent job of providing it, and I can imagine that those kind of plates are indispensable for a stylish, mid-priced, city-centre gaff like this, but there’s plenty on offer for more adventurous palates as well. The place was well-patronised when we arrived, but by the time we’d been there for forty-five minutes it was rammed, and the crowd of largely affluent thirty-somethings was deafening. A crowd like that has certain expectations, in terms of atmosphere, service and quality, which this restaurant has no difficulty in matching. Its excellent wine list, complete with daft, literary and implausibly metaphorical descriptions stays well within the reasonable end of restaurant pricing (although corkage is a protection racket by definition). The light, citric Pinot Grigio/Garganega we shared was the only Italian white, but we weren’t hard-done-by.
This is a big place, on two levels, and it’s designed to foster intimacy among diners, not between diners and staff—you’ll always feel at a remove from the kitchen. But what it lacks in home comforts, it makes up in panache, delivered with sufficient seriousness that most diners will be at home here—only those most committed to informality or to quiet will feel uncomfortable. It’s not too far off the beaten track, either in terms of its menu or its ambience, but for those who like their meals out to be interesting, it offers enough of a twist.