Friday, August 21, 2015

Day 4 - Festival Shows, The Real Mary King's Close and Restaurant Martin Wishart

“What’s the time?” “My guess from the lightening sky and the birds calling is somewhere between 5 and 5:30”. I find a phone. “4:52”.  Not bad. Bit of a milestone for me on a couple of fronts.
1. I’m adjusting to the time zone – we always get up at about ten to five for work
2. The first arrival adrenaline is easing. It’s always about day three that the manic activity eases and a more measured approach to exploring kicks in. Well measured for us anyhow, we do like to keep reasonably busy, and frankly our accommodation isn’t of a quality that will tempt you to just stay put and luxuriate. Which is not for want of trying when we were choosing a property. I cannot believe this place has a 5 bubble rating on TripAdvisor.
I spend a little while peering out the window at the dawning day. The gulls are waking too and setting out circling over the city and loudly passing on their overnight gossip and discussing where the best brekky might be found. Or so I imagine. By 5:30 the dominant noise is some traffic passing on nearby streets as I wait with an eye on the sunrise sky. The blue grey of the clouds is starting to edge slightly pink. Wishful thinking is giving it a more intense colour than it really possesses. I shift my position on the bed and journal where I am able to glance up from time to time. Another milestone today, I turn up to brekky on time.
We’re doing well for time should we want to head out but we don’t have any booked events until 3pm. We’re keen to get more into the festival and we spend a great slab of time browsing through guides, both online and in magazine form. Hubby suggests nordic comedian Tobias Persson, who is doing a show about the Drivel Rights Movement at York Place. I’ve short-listed some things for tomorrow, but I’m getting nowhere fast in respect to things for today. We are fans of Scandi drama so Mr Persson has the benefit of a lot of existing good will. We decide to give him a go. It’s not a terribly rational way to choose but it’s as good as applying Little Miss Pink to the situation and that’s about where we are at as an alternative. In any case, we didn’t fly to the other side of the earth to sit in this room on this slab of rock bed. Let’s go.
Hubby’s doing a great job with his application of the Edinburgh transport website and we have a simple ride on the number 16 arriving at The Stand on York Road with plenty of time to spare. 
We wander down the stairs and find some young lasses who seem a tad surprised to see us. They tell us there’s a cover charge as though they think we mustn’t know already. We’re clearly their first customers of the day and are obliged to hang about checking out the posters for other acts while they deal with a ticket machine malfunction. The ambience here is dark and reasonably dingy, but you expect that don’t you. Comedians live in the nether world of smokey, seedy dives with an atmosphere thick with cigarette smoke. This is a known fact is it not? ;-)
To kill the time remaining until the show we wander over to check out the menu at the Conan Doyle pub across the road but we don’t really have time to lunch before the show so we head back over and Hubby picks up a beer and a couple of packets of crisps which he continues to nibble throughout the show despite the occasional gentle nudge from my elbow from time to time.  When we showed our tickets at the door we’re invited to sit right up the front or it could be a really awkward show. OK then. I was beginning to wonder if we’re going to be the only ones here but luckily that proves not to be the case. I’d say we round out at about 8 or 10 patrons.
Tobias emerges from a door at the back of the room, bouncing in and out a little as he does his own introduction which was fairly amusing. The premise of the show is no secret – whereas once people, such as Ghandi or Rosa Parks fought for important rights or freedom, these days people are perceiving all manner of trivial bullshit as a “right”. Eg advertisers encouraging people to believe they have right to a nice kitchen. We do laugh along the way but I was distracted fairly regularly by a feeling that his argument is missing some significant points. It’s serious subject matter and the material feels pretty thin, like he’s trying to stretch half an hour or 40 minutes to make it the required hour long show. We both had the urge fairly regularly to just make our own contribution to the discussion or offer him a punch line where he doesn’t seem to have one, but of course, he’s already done the bit about “Why does an audience member feel the need to ruin the flow of the show with needless protests about rubbish PC issues”. So we figure we’d better keep our mouths tightly shut. Of course, Tobias seems to be oblivious to the possibility that a comedian feeling that they have a right not to be heckled could justifiably make the list of drivel rights.
This gig seems more like something for a soap box in speaker’s corner than comedy routine. There’s been a bit of a theme in the shows we’ve seen – yep all two of them – of irritation with audience members complaining that they’ve been offended by some joke or comment in the show. This alleged right to not be offended is, I would concede, a pretty significant threat to stand up. Most stand-up comedy is bound to offend someone, which is probably why a lot of people find it funny but also why sometimes it can cut through like no other medium. Case in point (the late.. sniff) Stella Young and her political activism including her show “Tales from the Crip”. Stella did more to promote access rights through her willingness to offend the able bodied, than a hundred people making heartfelt pleas about human rights or ramping up the pity politics. So I would say that Tobias Persson is too timid. His show would be a lot funnier and more effective as a social commentary if he was prepared to offend people more. Kind of ironic really.
The show now over, our priority is to get over to the Royal Mile and kill whatever time we have left there before our tour at the Real Mary King’s Close. It’s an easy business to hop back on a bus. Then we have a short walk through the lumpy territory of the Old Town, once again taking the stroll through the Princes Street gardens which is always a pleasant thing to do. Then we are faced with the stairs of Warriston’s Close. “Stop a minute” I say as Hubby makes a start on the climb. I want to photograph this. “The images on our camera may be useful at the coronial inquest when we collapse and die after we make it to the top.”
Warriston’s Close brings us to the back entrance of the Real Mary King’s Close via some shaded outdoor tables and chairs. There’s signage telling us to go in via the front entrance, which I think is a bit premature but Hubby is clearly a man with a mission. I play the meek and cooperative wifey for a bit and just go with him. Well we all need a bit of variety in life. Now assured that everything is in order and that we just need to front up 5 mins before our tour time and tell them our name, we’re free to amuse ourselves.  Of course we also need to get some lunch and I think we’ve already established our credentials on the food as entertainment front. We wander out onto the mile and back into the hubbub of the festival.
While Hubby focusses on identifying his next food source, I’m keen to enjoy the caricature artists and engage with what’s going on around us. We accept some flyers from Spruikers, some of whom have gone to a lot of effort, such as the Distinguished Gentlemen who are flouncing about in character whispering suggestively in the ears of passers-by such as myself. It’s a brilliant if chaotic atmosphere. If only Hubby wasn’t so obsessed by getting something to eat. “Hang on I have to get a photo of Adam Smith” I sing out to Hubby. “… he’s one of the giants of the Scottish Enlightenment” I continue when I am faced with his pained expression. Fortunately on mention of the enlightenment Hubby understands that this is indeed an important thing for us to devote half a minute to.  
It is now well after two o’clock so lunch IS in order. None of the eateries around really inspire. A couple of quick googles for some candidate cafes reveal reviews that aren’t great, and some of what people are consuming at outdoor tables, fingers stylishly caressing long stemmed wine glasses, confirms my assessment that the quiet café at the Real Mary King’s Close is probably as good as anything else around here, so that’s where we head.  Yeah, I’m fussy. You can see why I choose and book places to eat ahead most of the time.
Fast forward a quarter hour or so and we are happily seated in the Royal Exchange Coffee House, Hubby is happily munching on the two mini pies with mash and mushy peas. He’s chosen game pie and Haggis and Steak pie.  “Delicious” he tells me. I’ve chosen a chicken mayo and ..hmm. was it Orkney Smoked Bacon? on brown bread, which on arrival certainly raised my eyebrows. The bread is massively thick and there’s an enormous amount of creamy mayo oozing around the lumps of chicken breast. No sign of any bacon though and this is something I ask about when the waitress later comes to check everything’s OK with our meals. She’s puzzled and tells me it’s usually mixed in with the chicken and mayo. Really? I open the remaining half sandwich. There’s a few teeny little squares of chopped bacon there. “Oh, yes I see, there it is.” I smile and she departs. You can’t taste the bacon at all so really it’s a case of why bother. If that’s what you want to do with bacon you may as well let the pig live. 
The lovely waitress at the Royal Exchange deserves a special mention. She was really very considerate and came over to ask me if I’d like something to drink. She’d noticed my other half had just ordered himself a coffee and nothing for me. Not often someone shows that sort of concern for a customer. I was fine, but still I appreciated her thoughtfulness. .. a bit insulting to Hubby, but well intended.
We finish up in a slight hurry and make our way to the tour starting point.  Our guide is a very attractive young Italian woman and she does a very good job leading us through the dank and dark spaces and relating the stories they have illustrated by mannequins and rudimentary furnishings here and there. That said, for most of the tour I confess to thinking something along the lines of “What a *&^^ing tourist trap” and resenting the time this place was stealing from my day. However what we see improves as we go along and at the end the section where we emerge into the actual close and imagine the conditions and filth of Auld Reekie is better. Best thing for me was gaining an understanding of the geography and the closes running of the spine of the ridge along which the Royal Mile travels. There’s probably other ways to get that though and I suspect the various walking tours are one of them. For gaining some appreciation of the closes you’d do as well to just take a wander down Fleshmarket Close and if our experience is anything to go by, it will give you some authentic stale piss smell to go that little bit further in providing an authentic experience.  Hubby’s assessment of the Real Mary King’s Close is kinder than mine though. He’s enjoyed the time spent on it. Perhaps that’s aided by his not having done as much pre-reading or maybe he’s just nicer than me. Maybe both.
We emerge out on the mile and I notice the close just along the mile a bit. Anchor Close it’s called and it has a very interesting plaque. Wow. Well that’s something. I photograph and draw Hubby’s attention. Hubby was always a fan of Encyclopaedia Britannica and would take himself off and just sit reading it regularly when he was  young. 

I do my best to capture the atmosphere of the Close and then we head out into the Mile, making our way down to venue 39 via a quick stop at the Museum of Childhood where my time is fully occupied in the gift shop before they close.
Time now for our next festival event: Alphabet Girl written for and performed by Kaitlin Howard. For this we follow directions inside the Radisson Blu where they’ve done a great job of setting up multiple venues along cramped corridors to give us the feeling of not being in a major hotel, but a shady rabbit warren comedy venue. Atmosphere is important as we noted earlier.  A short wait and the doors open, the woman herself sells us a 50p program and we head in and take a seat in the front row.  This is not comedy though, this is a one woman performance piece.  Ms Howard plays or really I should say inhabits, 3 characters. A woman born about 1912, her daughter and her grand-daughter each of whom give a monologue about their lives. It’s well done and there is a climactic ending, for which I won’t be a spoiler but we’re both left wondering what the point was. Hubby has really struggled to stay awake pretty much from the moment his bum met the seat. He’s exhausted. Apparently he’d been awake half the night when I woke at ten to five this morning. The bed’s too hard even for him. This fatigue business is getting beyond a joke.
We dash home as quick as we are able and have a quick kip before dinner. It’s only 20 mins before we are woken by the jarring tone of the alarm Hubby set to make sure we don’t sleep through our dinner reservation. Right we’ve got 10 minutes to get over to Restaurant Martin Wishart. Easy. It’s only a five minute walk.  “Where is it?” Hubby asks. He’s clearly still half asleep. We’ve been standing outside this restaurant catching buses almost every day since we arrived. Explanation is duly provided.
I let Hubby take the charge on entering and we are greeted by the seemingly mandatory French maitre’d. What’s the go with all the French restaurant staff in high end around here?  The atmosphere at Restaurant Martin Wishart is quite formal and refined. Black clad staff floating up to meet our every need, obviously specialists in their particular task.  In restaurants like this I sometimes feel a little intimidated and self-conscious to tell them we won’t be having wine and I’ll just stick with water.  Hubby asks what beers they have and opts for Houston Crystal which we are pleased to find is served chilled. I touch the glass just to confirm and we nod and smile at each other. I request still water and high end pouring skills are applied to a stylish bottle of Glenfiddich Spring Water. I hate to think what that’s going to set us back. I didn’t think to ask for tap. Never mind.  Possibly the most challenging part of recording a meal at a Michelin starred restaurant are the various amuse bouche courses and here at Restaurant Martin Wishart there are several. First up is a classic black block of slate upon which are attached a little cigar described as curry, peanut and gherkin and a beetroot macaroon which has been hollowed out and filled with a white creamy substance. The crispy macaroon shell dissolves on our tongue. Delightful.
We have had to make a choice between various tasting menus and the a la carte. In the end it’s our mutual desire to have the whole Orkney lobster that dictates we stick with the a la carte.
Before we get stuck into the major items, we have a second round of amuse bouche. This time we are delivered two dishes. On the right we have a rich green frothiness of courgette and basil for which we need the dainty spoon provided and on the left we have ceviche of Halibut with melon served in half a passionfruit skin resting on a bed of raw lentils. The courgette and basil froth demands our attention as the fine bubbles conspire and plop threatening to reduce to a slippery soup, but the flavour provides a palate freshening alternative to the deliciously fruity halibut. Superb.
I was first cab off the rank announcing my choice of Langoustine a la plancha, accompanied by Charentais melon, Bellota ham and runner bean jus. The la plancha we have been informed, is a method of high heat cooking that does not require oils or fats making it a very healthy style of cooking. When it arrives, the melon is cut in perfect tiny cubes that are carefully arranged with the neat strips of langoustine meat resting on them in state, neat little curls of Bellota ham between. The waiter carefully pours the bright green runner bean jus around the arrangement having run us through once more what it is that has landed in front of us. The combination is fresh and the mix of flavours compliment one another beautifully keeping each mouthful fresh and lively.
Hubby had a more difficult time deciding which dish to request but in the end he was unable to resist the seared Foie Gras. Now I have to confess to being slack on the note-taking front and we failed to ask for a copy of the menu, so that’s about as detailed as I can be on this dish. It’s quite a formal atmosphere here and it has put me off my note taking stride for most of the meal, though I draw the line at not writing down the amuse bouche.  Hubby enjoyed his choice and it was certainly beautiful to look at. We’re sitting at what I call a “chaperone table”. It’s too wide to share tastings or to touch one another easily.
Mains we both have the Whole Orkney Lobster, Wye Valley asparagus, watercress, samphire and hollandaise sauce. This arrives at table in a quite theatrical performance of a trolley with immaculate silver dome dish covers protecting the luxury shellfish from incident in transit. Once on the table in front of us a show is made of spooning out the lobster pieces in hollandaise sauce from perfect miniature long handled copper pans. This is followed by the water cress which appears to have been blended to a nervous rich dark green strongly reminiscent of squashed caterpillar guts, but we will repress that impression and focus on the delightful contrast of the green and the red pattern of the sliced lobster tail and the head with its beady eyed stare. We each turn the head away to glare at the wall and commence our savouring.
We are brought a pre-dessert in a neat little shot glass – vanilla panna cotta with peach and raspberry. The great thing about these little morsels provided unbidden is the total lack of expectation and quite often the frisson of combinations or techniques that you would not usually indulge in. You really can’t go wrong with panna cotta of course, nothing challenging there, just a delightful little indulgence, unsought but definitely not unappreciated.
Our attractive young waitress who has been very attentive comes across to ask if we would like some chilled tap water to go with our dessert. I had declined further gold plated spring water you see and my glass is running low. I was delighted to accept the offer and in no time we have a beautifully chilled jug of water and full glasses. In retrospect I believe she may have had a secret agenda. I think she wanted to hear us speak. It’s not long before she proffers a quietly hesitant question. Where are we from? Australia. She beams. She thought she’d picked up an Aussie twang. She’s clearly pretty tickled to talk to us and tells us it’s ages since she’s heard an Aussie accent. I notice now that she’s Aussie too and she tells us she’s living here with her partner who is also an Australian and a barman. They have rellies here and she’s determined to see a red squirrel before they leave! So am I! It’s brilliant and she’s having a great time. The down side is that she’s struggling with the coffee here but is getting into the appreciation of tea. Ah. I see. This girl is obviously a Melbournian, but I too take the cautious route and ask the open question. Whereabouts are you from? Melbourne, well actually Geelong but studied in Melbourne.  Yes. I thought so. The coffee comment was a dead giveaway. Melbournians have a strong coffee culture. Famous for it.  Sydneysiders are picky with their coffee too mind you, but Melbournians are in a class of their own.
I’ve been very quiet on reporting results of the ordering competition front so far and perhaps this is due to the dessert course. Where I was utterly victorious at The Kitchin with the Orkney Scallops, Hubby is victorious here with dessert. What was I thinking going for the stand alone alternative while he paid the supplement for the tasting dessert? Fool!  I look on in envy as one by one Hubby works his way through Valrhona Caramelia Chocolate Cremeux, mango exotic sorbet, praline and caramelised pecan nuts; Poached apricots, passionfruit and ginger, compressed melon, mandarin sorbet, Castel di Lego olive oil; and Sable Breton, Lime Cream, and Scottish Strawberries, basil sorbet, and meringue.  Collectively and individually, the Tasting Dessert grinds my Knockraich Farm Crème Fraiche Canelloni, hibiscus jelly, raspberries and sorrel granite into the dust of mediocrity. Harsh but true.
As I cower in the loser’s booth and we decline further stimulants there’s nothing for it but to polish off the petit fours. We have hmm, I think it was Blackberry(?) macaroon and two perfectly spherical little banana donuts resting on a bed of what smells like cocoa shells in a pretty little bowl. The donuts are a bit treacherous, just a little too big to invite eating them whole, they are filled with a warm caramel banana filling that oozes dangerously when you bit into it.
We have noted the availability of the cheese trolley but pass. We’re sated. Another of our waitstaff comes over for some legitimate purpose or other, I can’t recall what now and we have a pleasant little chat with him too. It’s almost like our Melbournian friend has broken the ice. Whatever the cause, we enjoy it. Australians like less formal service as a general rule. Hubby and I do like to talk to our wait staff like they are people. We don’t like the whole servile politeness thing.
Hubby settles the bill and I indulge myself with a sustained ignorance of the precise cost of our outing, which can only enhance my fond recollections of the evening.  J It’s a short walk home again and we surrender to the land of nod. For a while at least. 

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