Sign up to myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Restaurants news.
It would usually count against a place if you walked in off the street and there were deliveries lying around. Not this time. You step off Edinburgh’s grubby Leith Walk into the pool of calm that is The Little Chartroom and there, on the table, is a basket of wild mushrooms that looks like it was just dropped off by some forest-dwelling elf. In other circumstances this might be wilful flaunting of sustainability credentials, but I don’t think The Little Chartroom does flaunting. In design terms, it’s a tiny little temple of modest restraint.
The food, on the other hand, is pyrotechnic.
The chef is Roberta Hall-McCarron, who has been working her way through kitchens, running a pub in Cambridgeshire that I still can’t quite believe I missed, and appearing on Great British Menu, which I’m glad I did. The Little Chartroom, which opened in 2018, marked a triumphant return to her hometown.
Combining a lightly house-cured mackerel with gooseberries is by no means unusual, but what is remarkable is laying it out over a puddle of Andalusian gazpacho made not with the traditional almonds but with sunflower seeds. It had a distant relationship to tahini and a passing resemblance to a fashionable nut milk but was far more interesting than either.
Most of all, it was a masterpiece of creative thinking: instantly recognisable foreground, entirely new background. When chefs try a big idea it is usually that most wearily jejune of turns, deconstruction. Recontextualisation is a new one for me, and I love it.
Roberta Hall-McCarron © Amelia Claudia
A few years ago, I had a dish by Heidi Bjerkan on the tasting menu at Credo in Trondheim that, at the time, felt like it rewired my appreciation of the potato. Hall-McCarron’s confit potatoes with girolles, wild leek, summer truffle and cheese equal Bjerkan’s, which is the highest compliment I can imagine. Confitting usually just packs fat into an ingredient (another high compliment) but here, the gentler, slower treatment concentrates the taste of the potato. It’s not a bland starch filler. It’s a glorious, starring vegetable.
There was a very good piece of duck on smooth borlotti beans accompanied by both beetroot and cherry purée, simple yet delightful in its interconnections. Sure, duck goes with cherry, but the cherry also harmonises with the beetroot . . . and then you realise that that earthy tone in the beetroot gets picked up by the same slightly soily note you get in borlotti . . . not black-eye peas or kidney beans or cannellini or castellana lentils, just borlotti.
And it feels like the fantastic geometry you sometimes see in the tiling of a mosque. The closer you look, the tighter the logic, the more glorifying the overall effect.
Halibut was served on the bone accompanied by cauliflower dyed with turmeric but not overdone — the yellow was pronounced but the flavour merely subtle enough to emphasise the cauliflower — and, to continue the “coronation” theme, fat, soaked raisins “curried” not with some arcane, handmade garam masala but tasting of proper old-fashioned curry powder. Witty, without archness.
What saddens me a bit is that you won’t get to go to The Little Chartroom, at least not in this incarnation, because in September, Hall-McCarron and her partner will be opening a new, bigger restaurant and this little gem will be relaunched in a more casual guise.
So why am I telling you all this? Because about two-thirds of the way through the meal it began to dawn on me that this was the work of a significant and important cook.
The subtlety, the cleverness, the profound feeling for ingredients — Hall-McCarron has them all, and she’s going to take that talent to a great big restaurant across town, where every reviewer will tell you she’s a phenomenon.
So don’t think of this as a review, more as an historical document, a record of a phenomenal meal, and also an advance warning. Something very exciting is happening in a corner of Edinburgh and I suggest you get in before everyone catches on. One day, just like me, you’ll be proud to be able to say you were there at the beginning.
The Little Chartroom
(from September 16)
14 Bonnington Road, Edinburgh, EH6 5JD; thelittlechartoom.com
Follow Tim on Twitter @TimHayward and email him at [email protected]
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first.