I first visited the Three Birds in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh shortly after it opened last year and I've been keen to return and see how their imaginative take on local dining is getting on. The sort of place oft referred to as 'a neighbourhood gem', the Three Birds pickles and smokes many of its own ingredients, sources from local, seasonal, sustainable suppliers, and all with a deft hand of foraging thrown in.
They feature good value lunch menus, gregarious sharing platters and fab in-house touches such as the 3Bird dukkah to nibble on and bespoke artisan soap in the ladies (can't speak for the gents). The menu is a world away from typical restaurant offerings, instead of chicken liver pâté there's venison or beef tongue to start and a range of mains and specials featuring what's good here at this point in the earth's journey round the sun.
First up was the 3Bird Dukkah to share. A middle eastern mix of toasted spices, seeds and chopped nuts, it's served with extra virgin olive oil, syrupy shallot vinegar and bread for dipping into. It had an excellent, smoky flavour with hints of coriander, cumin, almond, pine nut and possibly cashew. I loved the shallot vinegar too but the bread was a bit thinly sliced for me, almost too refined for the rustic dukkah. Personal choice but I'd prefer chunkier pieces that would better accommodate the oil and spices.
For the first course were one of two halloumi dishes on the menu. I chose the special, fried Halloumi with pickled red cabbage, black garlic, spring onions and an orange dressing. I have never eaten black garlic before and it's produced by fermenting the bulbs at a high temperature with balsamic vinegar for 24 hours. It's a different taste, with mild garlic undertones; it's almost sweet but bitter, a bit like dried fruit that's been baked in a Christmas cake. It does however go very well with small but juicy pieces of halloumi (not too waxy) and some joyous pink picked cabbage. The spring onions and a few leaves were great too. I didn't catch too much of the orange flavour but it was there to pull it all together at the back of my palate.
Halloumi (above) and the curious black garlic clove (right)
The second starter was Salad of Smoked Mackerel, Oyster Mushrooms with a Caper and Egg dressing. Another colourful, well presented dish; the mackerel was strong and punchy and stood up to the dressing. Again, the raw ingredients were of a high standard. Both starters were served on small wooden boards (possibly olive) and though they were starter sized in terms of portion control, the boards made them look slightly smaller than they actually were, my only criticism.
Main course and I chose another special, the Oven Baked Sea Bass, intrigued by the home-smoked treacle bacon in the dish. The fish was perfectly cooked, served with the bacon, crayfish, sea aster (a sort of flat samphire we were told) new potatoes and a sun dried tomato butter. I loved the flavours, the generous piece of fish, the slightly crispy, buttery potatoes and jewel-like crayfish hidden under the bass. The bacon though, while having a great, smoky, sweet flavour that didn't overpower the delicate fish, was just a bit too flabby and chewy in texture for me. I'd prefer it crispier and I loved the tiny bit of rind on it, more of that please! The sea aster was more like tarragon than samphire but I enjoyed the novelty of it, there was bite to the leaves with a hint of the sea air in them. A few of the yellow sea aster flowers had been added as a garnish but these were a bit too bitter, the only thing that threatened to overpower the fish.
The Second second course was from the main menu, breaded pork schnitzel with a creamy leek sauce, potatoes and boiled eggs. An interesting dish to see on a menu these days, a slight retro feel but rich, comforting if not hugely summery. The pork wasn't too dry and the sauce was really tasty, the only thing missing was a bit of colour on the plate but we still enjoyed it immensely.
The dessert menu too is not short of imagination, I was torn between the Coconut and Cardamom Sponge and Heather Honeycomb and Truffle Oil Vanilla Ice Cream. In the end the ice cream won, despite a warning from a waitress that the truffle oil flavour was very strong. Apparently this dish has divided customer opinion so far! It wasn't overpowering in terms of taste, which was slightly salty, savoury, but more the texture, which was quite oily but not off-puttingly so. However my dining companion picked up engine oil somewhere in the mix, as have previous customers!
|Old school wafers|
Far more interesting was the honey rippled through the ice cream, it tasted like nectar, like wild flowers, like sun on a rocky hillside, I felt like a fat greedy bumblebee. We shared the ice cream, but for one person it was too big a serving. Because the whole combination is quite intense, half that amount would be enough. The restaurant buys its ice cream from Over Langshaw Farm who make it specially for them. They've several other interesting flavours including blue cheese and Guinness and Baileys. Although they prepare a lot of their other ingredients such as the bacon perhaps outsourcing this is a cannier move to take the pressure off the kitchen.
All this was being washed down with a carafe of gluggable Spanish white wine, 100% Macabeo grapes. Not too dry but not lacking personality it was good value, working out at £4 per large glass. There is a small, reasonable wine list with a nice Prosecco I tried last time I visited, and the usual teas and coffees, none of which we had on this occasion. Like the wine, The Three Birds can be summed up by good value; considering the imagination, sourcing and flair that goes into their menus it's hard to beat in terms of cost, with all this coming in at £65 (including wine). It's the kind of place where you spend half the evening excited to be there and be talking about the food itself which is no bad thing. We're lucky to have places like this on the doorstep in Edinburgh.