Great Places to Eat in Scotland
- Abstract, Castle Terrace, Edinburgh

The Location
In the shadow of Edinburgh Castle at the foot of Johnstone Terrace, which sweeps down from the Lawnmarket, a brand new restaurant, Abstract, has opened on Castle Terrace. A short walk from Lothian Road, this is ideal for visitors staying at the Sheraton or the Point Hotel who want to find an alternative to these fine hotel restaurants one night. In the heart of the financial district, this is ideal for business or leisurely social lunches. It's also near the Usher Hall (pictured here), Royal Lyceum Theatre and several cinemas. The property on this site was previously a Chinese restaurant, but now has been completely gutted to create a very stylish, fine dining French restaurant.

The Restaurant - Background

Head Chef Loic Lefebvre
and Caroline, the Manager

Readers who have seen celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's television programme, Kitchen Nightmares, may recall one episode a couple of years ago, which featured La Riviera Restaurant at the Glenmoriston Hotel, Inverness. Gordon Ramsay visited to meet the Head Chef Loic Lefebvre who was determined to obtain that elusive and top of the career accolade, a Michelin star. He wanted advice on his menu and style of cuisine to see if, and how, he should improve it. Ramsay gave his verdict that the food was overly fussy with too many competing flavours. Lefebvre disagreed and was not too happy about taking criticism when he had great confidence and pride in his individual, imaginative dishes.

The TV show offered exceptional promotion for the restaurant and Glenmoriston quickly became a destination hotel. Foodie diners flew up from London to the re-named Abstract to experience the distinctive quality and contemporary slant on classic French cuisine. In April 2005, Abstract won the Scottish Hotel Restaurant Award at the Scottish Hotels of the Year Awards. It went on to win most Stylish Restaurant and Scottish new restaurant at the Chef Awards.

A second Kitchen Nightmares programme saw Ramsay return to Abstract in Inverness to see how Lefebvre and his team were progressing. Very well indeed, thank you. It has just been named a Michelin Rising Star for 2007. At Glenmoriston, there is also an informal bistro, Contrast, which is proving a great hit.

Abstract - Edinburgh
And so with the name Abstract firmly on the culinary map, hotel and restaurant owner Barry Larsen decided to expand and open a second restaurant in Edinburgh. Abstract on Castle Terrace was launched in March 2007 and is already receiving 5 star reviews and packed tables.

The moment you walk in, a pervasive sense of glitz and glamour is the first impression. The entrance takes you straight into the New York-style cocktail bar - cool, classy and very smart with dark wood, classic rococo wallpaper, soft lighting, leather chairs and square booths. At 7.30pm on a Saturday night, a talented young singer is entertaining guests with a few jazz and blues numbers at the baby grand, as they sip their cocktails. This is sophisticated and fun - so different than anywhere else in Edinburgh.

At the hostess desk guests are welcomed, shown to a bar table and drinks ordered. The charming, super efficient maitre d' Caroline Cordier, formerly at Abstract Inverness, manages a slick operation. Next door, the restaurant is a fabulous L shaped space with hidden corners, nooks and crannies; tables elegantly set for 2, 4 or 6 diners - exotically covered in faux snakeskin - are well spaced for privacy. Décor features gold painted ceiling panels and an occasional glittering mirrored pillar. Around the walls is a collection of bold, monochrome abstract paintings by Scottish artist, William Johnstone, an artistic touch - which gives the restaurant its name. The ambience is warm and buzzing with animated conversation. (Probably talking about the food - more of which later).

So what is all the fuss about Abstract? Loic Lefebvre, Executive Chef has an exemplary CV. In France he has worked at Le Martinez Palace, Cannes, and then was appointed Sous Chef at La Bastide Saint Antoine which has 2 Michelin Stars. A prime opportunity found him working alongside the Pourcel Brothers at Le Jardin des Sens (3 Michelin Stars), acting as Head Chef in their absence.

The Food

What Abstract offers is choice. Select two or three courses from the à la carte menu - an extensive list of starters, fish, meat dishes and dessert - or the 8 course Tasting Menu. Other restaurant critics have compared Lefebvre's exciting style of cooking to the experimental creations of Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck (his famous invention of egg and bacon ice-cream made us revise the childhood notion that ice-cream must be sweet). Lefebvre is certainly as inventive and creates dishes of three or four contrasting ingredients with unusual combinations and artistic presentation, or one particular dish, (e.g. foie gras) prepared three different ways.

Start perhaps with Roasted hand-dived Scallops, served with cabbage and mandarin, with a slice of crisp ginger bread, or Carpaccio of Guinea Fowl, with butternut, cress and chestnut - distinctive, fresh flavours and textures to entice the taste buds.

Main courses offer four fish and four meat dishes - such as Poached Wild Sea Bass with scallops, white asparagus and avruga sauce, or Border Lamb, aubergine cannelloni, confit tomato and provencal jus. Desserts are taken as seriously. The kitchen likes you to pre-order at the start of the meal for preparation time - especially something like Hazelnut Soufflé jazzed up with Dalmore whisky and coffee ice-cream, or Apple 4 Ways - quartet of different Apple desserts. And there's a proper French Cheese trolley with a fine selection.

Highly recommended is the Chef's Tasting Menu -go for it and indulge in eight delicious courses - for £55 it's extremely good value. Opt for the Wine selection too for six small glasses of wine which perfectly complements each course. The menus change regularly but you may begin (after a surprise amusé bouche) with a pre-starter of Scallops tartar with avruga caviar and topped with a green apple froth, served in a tall glass, served as together with a small bowl of butternut squash soup flavoured with nougat and cress. You can see what I mean about contrasting flavours and imaginative combinations. We also sampled two (tiny) fish dishes, such as Seared Red Mullet, sitting on a large morel mushroom.

The meal is well paced, with the Sommelier arriving at the table with the glasses of wine, explaining exactly why this has been selected. Then the waiter arrives with the next course, describing the complete dish. From canapés to dessert, eight courses may seem a marathon but portion sizes are minute, two or three mouthful samples. The whole meal is a culinary journey and an absolute treat.

For a true foodie experience, reserve the Chef's Table for parties up to ten diners. You will then enjoy the Tasting Menu watching the kitchen brigade at work, as the Chef explains more about the preparation of the food and dishes.

The Bill
À la carte: Starters - £10-£12. Main courses - £19-£24. Dessert - £8.
Chef's Tasting Menu: £55. Tasting Menu with wine selection - £80.00.
Lunch Menu - choice of three dishes per course. 2 courses - £12.95. Desserts from £4.00.
Extensive wine list, from around £15. The Sommelier is also pleased to select wines by the glass for the a la carte menu.

Further Information
Abstract is at 33-35 Castle Terrace. For reservations, telephone 0131 229 1222. See also the Abstract Web site.

Abstract is a serious, sophisticated, smart and truly European restaurant - you would think you have just flown to Paris or Milan; it's stylish with a capital "S". A small team of mainly French staff offer top notch hospitality and service. This is Artistic cuisine where Loic Lefebvre is the Picasso or Andy Warhol of the kitchen, where the image of familiar food and dishes has been distorted, coloured and reinvented for the 21st century. Dining here is not just about eating; it involves all senses, taste, sight, smell, touch and hearing - with a touch of theatre about it. Abstract offers exquisite, exciting cuisine, a glamorous setting and a memorable night out.

Vivien Devlin, British Guild of Travel Writers
April 2007

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