Richard Cree 23 Mar 2017 03:10pm

Playing at Devil’s Advocate

Advocate’s Close is the type of characterful back alley (in this case off Cowgate) that’s such a notable feature of Edinburgh’s Old Town

Caption: Richard Cree experiences giddy highs and vexatious lows in a bar nestled in Edinburgh's Old Town.

There you’ll find the old Victorian pump house that’s home to Devil’s Advocate. It is the sort of characterful, quality bar and restaurant that’s also become a notable feature of the city. Where some restaurants make a token effort with the drinks and where bars able to serve up the best cocktails often fail to deliver high-quality food, here the balance is perfectly struck.

It’s as pitch perfect as the Pisco Sour that arrives shortly after we sit down in a snug booth in the lively downstairs bar. The service remains equally pleasant and perky throughout. The bar is busy even on a Monday evening thanks to a relaxed mix of tourists and locals all eagerly tucking into beers, whiskies and a comprehensive cocktail list.

For a bar boasting over 200 whiskies there is a separate whisky menu and many of the cocktails come with a whisky twist. But before we get adventurous we decide to check out some classics, including the aforementioned Picso Sour, an Old Fashioned and a Negroni. All are treated with respect and well crafted. Once we get onto the house specials, the cocktails occasionally try too hard to accommodate the smoky extremes of some very peaty whiskies.

There is a terrible, medicinal Ileat Gimlet that contains “elements of Islay Peat” and ends up serving as a punishment drink. Others, notably the Builder’s, which turns Pisco, Dutch rye and banana cream into a gorgeous, milky infusion that’s served in a teacup (with malted milk biscuit) are a delight despite the hipster tone.

One highlight is the complex Black Dog that confounds its recipient by looking like a small glass of stout but tasting (simultaneously) like fruit juice with a coffee finish. It’s nicer than it sounds and is the sort of clever, themed mixology that can either be genius or dreadful. There’s also an excellent wine list that picks out some unusual expressions of the more common varietals and never strays over £55.

When it comes to food, the restaurant’s website claims it offers quality, seasonal Scottish produce. It’s a moot point. How local to Scotland can Ras el hanout tabbouleh, pomegranate, harissa and yoghurt ever be? In truth, there is a global influence to proceedings. Whether that means goat’s cheese from England or a beef cut popular in Brazil (picanha) or a punchy chorizo, it doesn’t affect the quality of dishes, which is consistently high.

Sweet potato fritters and salmon fishcakes aren’t exactly experimental but both are well executed with a surprising attention to detail. A bowl of crisp, garlic-sautéed mushrooms served with croutons and chorizo or wilted spinach and Golden Cross goat’s cheese delights, although a small, steep bowl means it also frustrates.

Garlic & rosemary picanha turns out to be succulent and grilled to perfection (no option being offered on order) and stands up well to a pungent side of parmesan and truffle chips. A tidy enough chocolate torte turns out to be the pick of an underwhelming dessert menu, although a zesty, vibrant Tokaji adds plenty to this part of proceedings.

Before we leave we take another jump into the cocktail list, again experiencing giddy highs and vexatious lows. It’s clear the cocktail makers are given more licence to play devil’s advocate than kitchen staff. On balance, that turns out to be the right way round.

Richard Cree is editor-in-chief of economia