It was all going so well. Long-awaited Edinburgh newcomer Oloroso opened its doors just before Christmas and was greeted with a collective, contented sigh from the critics. Not the best time to launch a new restaurant, granted, but owners James Sankey and chef Tony Singh wanted to ease themselves in gradually.
By mid-January the word was out and bookings flooded in. (Oloroso is now taking booking three months ahead - and Hogmanay 2003 is already booked, such was the party last year.) Singh should be jubilant - but he's not. On the outside, he is, of course, pleased with the way things are going. On the inside, he's miserable.
In mid-February, his business partner and friend, Sankey, suffered a cardiac arrest and consequent brain damage. At the time of writing, the long-term prognosis is uncertain. "He won't be back for some time," says Singh, dejectedly. Sankey is the other half of the restaurant's driving force and the team is missing its mentor.
However, Singh is more than able to cope on his own. He had originally planned to open his own place before Sankey suggested that they team up. So for now, it is Singh alone who will tell their story - about how the talented pair of thirtysomethings created one of Edinburgh's smartest, most happening restaurants.
You may remember Sankey from a former Caterer Adopted Business. He ran Edinburgh's Atrium, and then Blue Bar Café, for owner Andrew Radford for 10 years. Before that he worked on the Royal Scotsman and at Cromlix House, in Dunblane, Perthshire.
Singh, a fourth-generation Scottish Sikh, has lived north of the border for most of his life. There was a stint down south at Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead, West Sussex, and at a London hotel (St Ermins) but the rest of his CV is sprinkled with such Scottish culinary hotspots as Greywalls Hotel in Gullane, East Lothian, and Martins Restaurant in nearby Rose Street, and most recently, the Royal Yacht Britannia, moored in Leith, where he picked up ITV Chef of the Year 2000.
After a year-and-a-half as the ship's head chef, he felt it was about time to open up his own place, so he set about searching for a site - which proved more difficult than he had anticipated. "That's when me and James got together," he says. "James had found this place and asked if I wanted to join forces." Singh and Sankey's backers (a group of local businessmen) clubbed together to come up with the £1.3m spent on the site.
And what a spot. As the address hints, there are views straight out on to the castle, with floor-to-ceiling windows making the best of it. In the summer months, the view is completely unobstructed as the terrace (with room for a further 100 covers) has uninterrupted views of Edinburgh's crowning glory, complete with one o'clock gun salute - Americans will be falling over themselves to book a table here. "Though we haven't quite worked out what to do when it rains," Singh says. "Bring their brollies, I guess."
The building is owned by its occupiers, Pearl Assurance, which also provides a steady flow of customers - along with the businesses in nearby George Street and beyond - who pack out the 70-capacity bar from 5pm nightly, setting up camp on the faux suede lounge chairs, nibbling on the substantial bar food, or waiting to move through to the 80-cover restaurant.
The minimalist interior was designed by restaurant first-timers Richard Murphy architects. The company is well known for its residential interiors, though Singh and Sankey came up with 50% of the ideas. A charcoal grey carpet ("it took us ages to find the right colour," Singh says) soaks up what it can of the loud chatter and background music (a bizarre mix of Spandau Ballet and Massive Attack). The only splash of colour is from the ochre end wall and the single pink tulips on the white linen-clad tables.
"Do you like these fireplaces?" Singh asks. "James spotted them in the Hempel." There's one in the bar area and another in the private dining room, which seats 14 and has the best view in the house.
Singh should really have 12 in the kitchen, but there are only eight at present. "It's hard to get people in Edinburgh," he says. "We're competing with the corporate caterers who offer a cushy nine-to-five job and nick the best staff." Singh's senior sous chef is David Romanis, junior sous is Richard Baird, with Sam Clark on pastry.
He has clear ideas about his food. "It's multi-cultural - not fusion," he corrects. "Global comfort food? I like that." At first glance, it's not quite so obvious how global his influences actually are. The menu ranges from starters (all £6.50) such as pigeon with rocket and ricotta gnocchi, to roast pumpkin soup, shallot with pepper and won tons; mains (all £17) include chump of lamb with aubergine compote and Asian pesto with chips, to poached guinea fowl with pork belly and tamarind broth; desserts (all £6.50) skip from banana tarte tatin and coconut ice-cream to frangipane beignets with pineapple and orange syrup.
Take the pork belly. It's marinated for a week-and-a-half in a mixture of fish sauce, toasted and cracked coriander seeds and char siu sauce, before being roasted then served on a mound of egg noodles - none of which is mentioned on the menu. "I hate it when you get too much information on a menu. I like there to be an element of surprise," Singh says.
Most customers are certainly surprised by the skate sausage, which makes an occasional appearance. The wing meat is stuffed with a caper and tarragon mousse (the surprise), before being poached and served with sauerkraut and a red wine jus.
Considering the plethora of Asian ingredients he uses, it's surprising that Singh has never actually worked in Asia. "But I've worked with plenty of Chinese chefs, and I've worked with chefs who cooked for the Sultan of Brunei. You just pick up stuff."
There are no best-selling dishes as such, as the menu changes daily for both lunch and dinner, though desserts stay as they are for a week or so. Singh does have favourite recipes, though. He loves pulses - particularly black turtle beans, which he mixes with onions cooked down with saffron, and serves with fish or meat, a sauce vierge and a dribble of balsamic vinegar. "It brings out the earthiness of the beans a treat," he says.
On a Thursday night in early March, there was an indecent number of orders for steak and chips (Saturday night is usually Big Steak Night). There's a separate grill menu, featuring Highland Longhorn beef "sourced by farmers known to us" and the meat is aged according to the size of the joint. A 9oz rib eye is £23.75, an 8oz fillet steak is £26 and an 8oz sirloin is £23.75.
All the steaks come with a choice of sauces and butters (including chilli jam and salsa verde), plus slow-roast tomatoes, seasonal green vegetables and the house chips. The chips are sensational - small, crunchy nuggets, with something else I can't put my finger on. "We sprinkle them with smoked salt," Singh replies. Coarse Italian sea salt is mixed with Spanish smoked paprika, then spread out on a tray and stuck in the smoker. He does wasabi salt and lemon salt too (more surprises).
About 50% of diners eat the bar food, which can also be ordered in the restaurant at lunchtimes only. The menu is altogether more simple, with fish cakes (£7.50), bang bang chicken (£5) and Singh's personal favourite, a BET (bacon, egg and tatties) - smoked bacon, fried egg, potato scone and brown sauce (£5). "Whatever we do at Oloroso, you can be sure there aren't six different people playing around with it," Singh says.
Oloroso, 33 Castle Street, Edinburgh, EH2 3DN. Tel: 0131-226 7614
Wine and seasonings
Singh's sneaky seasoning is rather hard on sommelier and restaurant manager Ludovic Cosson, who nonetheless takes it all in his stride. A wine to go with seared turbot and a tamarind broth? No problem. Actually, Singh's food, for all its punchy flavours, goes very well with wine - which is hardly surprising considering Sankey's involvement. Sankey made a name for himself with the wine list at Atrium and Blue, and Oloroso's offering is no less exciting, as it trots the globe scooping up little-known gems.
There are, of course, the sherries - 14 in all, including three Olorosos (one each from Hidalgo and Barbadillo, in Sanlucar de Barrameda, the other a dulce from Gonzalez Byass). It's good to see Madeira on there too - there are eight, from Blandy's five-year-old Malmsey to H Borges Old Reserve Sercial. There's also an impressive line-up (17) of Champagne - with Moët & Chandon the pouring bubbly (at £8.50 a glass), plus a few old vintages of Dom Pérignon Oenothèque (the 1964 is £600).
Cosson previously worked with John Power and his award-winning wine list at the Tower, Edinburgh, so he knows his stuff. "Eventually I want 50 whites and 50 reds," he declares.