The once declining area of Leith, Edinburgh’s port, is now bustling and thriving, with an embarrassment of choice for the well-heeled diners of Scotland’s capital. Discerning foodies need not just seek tables at the Michelin starred restaurants in the area to satisfy their gastronomic cravings. A variety of British, European and Asian cuisine is now available with highly competent cooking and prices to suit all pockets. Perhaps none gives better value for money than Bistro Provence.
Open six days a week – closed Mondays – it offers all day dining either from the “Nibbles and light bites” menu (available from 12pm to 5pm), the “Menu du Midi” (two courses £12.95, three courses £17), or the dinner menu (£22.50 for two courses, £27.50 for three). Prices like these are rare in any part of the capital and are more surprising given the quality of the ingredients and the confidence shown in the cooking. Little wonder that Bistro Provence attracts a mixed clientele of tourists, locals and civil servants from the Scottish government buildings opposite. On the night we visited, there was a strong French contingent of diners, not just, one suspects, because of the France v Scotland rugby match the next day!
Located in a converted whisky warehouse in Commercial Street, on the site of previous French restaurants, the small wine bar by the entrance leads to a steel and glass conservatory like-dining room which is bright, airy and spacious. Echoes of industrial chic are seen in the tubular air conditioning vents and bare bricked walls of the original building. Lighting is not too dimmed and tables are well spaced with high backed leather seating for a maximum of 30 covers. A lively buzz of contented diners adds to the relaxed, informal feel.
Multi-faceted chef patron Michel Fons leads both the kitchen and front of house teams. His extensive experience in noted Edinburgh establishments such as La Garrigue, The Plumped Horse and Kitchin, and most recently as Restaurant Manager at Gidleigh Park, has stood him in good stead for the exacting demands of restaurant life. After opening in 2013, success came early with the award of an AA rosette, recommendation in the Michelin Guide and a finalist in the prestigious CIS excellence awards in the Newcomer of the Year category.
Michael has designed a menu reminiscent of his native Provence, from where he sources most of his olive oil, herbs and spices. The March dinner menu comprises a choice of five in each of the starters, mains and dessert sections – wide enough to give a real choice, but not too broad to ensure consistency of cooking by a brigade of up to four. Accuracy in timing, clarity of taste, robust flavours, harmony of textures and temperatures, and attractive but not contrived presentation are key features. Seasoning and saucing are also strengths, allowing the main ingredient to shine. Portions are large, reflecting the generosity of spirit often found in regional French bistros.
A select wine list, many available by the glass, is suitably French, and again very good value for money by avoiding excessive mark ups. We chose appropriately for this Provencal menu a rose wine – Cuvée des Lices, Provence 2013.
Our evening meal began with crutons of sausage and red onion and cheese with walnut dressing. These served their purpose in teasing the palate but not stealing the thunder from the main event.
Sampling the Traditional fish soup was essential in this southern French restaurant, and it did not disappoint in its degree of colour and depth of flavour. Classic garnishes of rouille, crutons and Comté added texture and helped to balance the piscine intensity of the soup.
A hearty Salade Paysanne of duck and chicken livers, accurately cooked pink, came with a parmesan tuile, sauteed onions, lardons, peas shoots and a port syrup. The contrasting soft and crunchy textures, warm and cool temperatures, and sweet and savoury flavours, so typical of French salades composées, made the dish a delight to eat.
A stuffed French rabbit main course saw the bacon wrapped leg and saddle precisely timed to retain their moistness and mildly gamey flavour. Celeriac fondant & purée gave a nutty, gentle aniseed sweetness that worked well with the rabbit. A classic finish was provided by a flavoursome but not overpowering creamy Old Grain mustard sauce.
A duck main course burst with flavours of the Mediterranean. The thinly sliced breast, cooked to a blushing pink, was enlivened by the perfume of soft and sweet roast garlic and paprika infused ratatouille. A deeply reduced tapenade sauce worked well in this gusty, strongly flavoured dish.
Desserts at Bistro Provence were equally accomplished.
Bitter chocolate tart was suitably indulgent with it dense ganache and crisp pastry. Salted caramel ice cream complemented the tart well in terms of temperature and taste.
A special of individual blueberry clafoutis was well baked to produce a crisp crust and soft, bouncy interior. My only quibble about this delicious dessert – accompanied by a velvety smooth vanilla ice cream – was the portion being rather small.
Overall, this was a most pleasing dinner, enhanced by welcoming, knowledgeable service. Perhaps the most impressive feature about the food is its essential integrity. There are no gimmicks, no excesses and no faddish techniques. It is classic bistro cooking at its best. Fine Dining Guide will follow the progress of Bistro Provence with interest, and will no doubt return to sample other dishes from its carefully constructed seasonal menu.