30 Albert Pl, Edinburgh EH7 5HN www.thelittlechartroom.com
Berries from the hedgerows and fungus from the woods – The Little Chartroom is the modest 18-cover restaurant that’s put Edinburgh’s Albert Place on the map.
It hasn’t been a bad few months since Roberta Hall and husband Shaun McCarron opened TLC in June 2018.
Highlights include Grace Dent’s swooning Guardian review, making the Michelin Guide and winning the Young British Foodie Chef award 2018.
With careers that span stints at The Balmoral, The Kitchin and Michelin starred Number One, Shaun and Roberta have quickly carved a niche with their quietly confident style that’s all about precise amalgamations of flavour.
I’ve bagged a coveted spot at the bar where I can see straight into the kitchen and watch as dishes are assembled on the pass.
Not used to being this close to the action, I’m totally engrossed watching Roberta clean some beautiful apricot coloured fungus, laying them out on a tea towel to dry.
Next, somebody’s starter is up on the pass and she’s piping duck liver parfait into a dainty wooden bowl before decorating with cobnuts, rowanberries and apple.
I’m so busy eyeballing the kitchen action that I almost forget to look at the menu Ã¢â‚¬â€œ almost. There’s nothing more reassuring than a short menu, especially for a restaurant of this size.
Short is confident, while I always think long-winded menus are so dithering. Give people too much choice and they’ll almost always panic and revert to something familiar.The Little Chartroom’s menu goes with three choices for each course, and that’s just fine by me.
To help my deliberations Shaun brings over a basket of bread, one a chewy sourdough made by their own hands and the other a dark and treacly soda bread made somewhere local.
To be honest, I wouldn’t usually mention the bread since I’m never keen to fill myself up with carbs before I can get my hands on the good stuff. I intend to take a courtesy bite of a slice, but I end up polishing it off and pressing a finger onto my plate crumbs.
A couple wander in and ask for a table, but alas the place is fully booked on a Thursday night. You get the feeling it’s the same story most nights, with those precious 18 seats going to folks who know to get their booking in early.
When the regulars turn up they’re greeted like old friends, and it’s evident that they’re just as excited about eating here as they were on their fist visit. There’s an unpretentious easiness about the place, largely down to Shaun’s reassuring presence front of house, but also helped by Bob Dylan in the background.
I decide to go vegetarian for the evening, so I passed up the duck liver parfait or lobster garlic tagliatelle with girolles in favour of fig, beetroot, driftwood goats’ cheese and caramelised walnut salad.
Lots of delicious ingredients mixed through some glistening peppery leaves. These are classically good flavours piqued with modern touches like the nuggets of nutty meringue.
There are some translucent discs of pickled beet to balance out sweet and savoury, the whole thing as delicate and light as a dandelion head blown across my plate, albeit much tastier.
Shaun tells me that the main ingredient for my main – Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, charred sweetcorn, pearl barley risotto, hazelnuts and spring onion – is sourced by a secretive forager who travels the world in search of wild ingredients.
He’ll often input at the creative stage, says Shaun, when they’re looking for a certain something that will complete the dish. Although I love the idea of foraged ingredients, I’m not always convinced. It’s often the case that people are sold on the idea rather than the actual taste, so I’m interested to see what The Little Chartroom pulls out of the bag.
Hen of the Woods, for those that don’t know (including me prior to eating it) grows in a frilly clump at the foot of dead oak trees.
It has a branching structure, a bit like cauliflower, with milky white stalks and layers of brown caps. The harvesting time of late summer to early August is precise since the mushroom toughens as it ages and becomes inedible.
The Little Chartroom has carved it across the midsection like a joint, roasting off the slices in butter. It has a succulent, slightly chewy texture that I love, while the taste is earthy and distinct, the flesh having soaked up the butter like a sponge.
It goes fantastically well with the creamy pearl barley risotto, but keeping it separate means that you get more textural interest. The charred corn and hazlenuts pick up on the sweet and nutty notes of the mushrooms and barley in a dish that’s both rich and refined. Other mains were venison with quince tart and chestnut, or hake with chicory, autumn truffle and a bordelaise sauce.
Puds are elderberry curd tart made with berries from the forager, coffee panna cotta with chocolate and caramel, or Tunworth cheese, plum and buckwheat cake.
Convincing myself I’m getting a medicinal dose of vitamin C I go for the tart, a delicate baste of buttery crumbs filled with a deep mauve curd. Elderberries don’t have the floral notes of the flowers, but their juice is fantastically rich, concentrated and zingy, which makes them perfect for curds.
It comes with a simple scoop of crÃƒÂ¨me fraiche to soften the tartness; a sweet but fresh-tasting end to a meal that’s without fault.