Hanoi; September 6, 2023:
Mikel and I have just returned from celebrating our 30th anniversary in Scotland, where we both have ancestors, but where I had never been. We visited friends, both new and old, and stayed in the Central Belt, from Ayrshire to the Port of Leith. The Fringe Festival (with its 4000 performances and 50,000 performers), the Edinburgh Festival (tonier, with everything from ballet to John Cale), and the International Book Festival were going on, so the streets were packed and we saw a lot of entertainment, from circus acts to one-man plays. And we ate well.
Scotland is famously green and wet, but we had only one small downpour when we tried to go fly fishing on a reservoir near Innellan, where our friends the Easdales, whom we met in Bulgaria when we lived there ten years ago, have their country cottage. After a long weekend with them, we went to Edinburgh for two weeks, where we had two small misty rains the entire time. It’s true that you can have four seasons of weather in one day in Scotland, but we were never cold and the sun shone more than not. The entire population of Scotland is just over 5 million. Nearly half that many people visit Edinburgh, and a majority of them are there in August for the festivals. Nevertheless, the city, which has just over half a million people, is very green, with expansive parks at every turn, and the Water of Leith is a 12-mile-long paved pathway that hugs the river from its source to the Port of Leith, providing a lush habitat for all kinds of wildlife from minks to kingfishers. It runs right through the city. (I have posted dozens of photos on my Instagram account.)
We had very good food, focusing on seafood from the Irish Sea, the Atlantic, and the North Sea — scallops, crab, mussels, oysters, haddock, hake, and sea bass. At Fisher’s in Leith the mussels were plump, but the surprise there were the locally foraged chanterelles, served with an herbed, whipped feta. At The Outsider in town, where the menu changes daily, I had a lovely soup chock full of both fish and shellfish. We ate in two small French bistros, both excellent — cassoulet at La Garrigue and frog legs and rabbit at Chez Jules. And the only oysters we really cared for (all too flabby and opaque, with a custard-like consistency — more at American Gulf Coast, not East Coast, begging to be cooked) were, not surprisingly, at the excellent White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar. Their diver scallops were also excellent, though seasoned with bacon and too much of it. The queenie scallops and octopus I had at Rollo were better. At Ondine, I chose to eat several appetizers, including their excellent fish and shellfish soup with rouille and Gruyère. (I should add that you definitely needed reservations at all of these places, especially during festival month.) There was a Swedish bakery, Söderberg, around the corner from our overpriced hotel in West End with excellent cardamom and cinnamon rolls. And everywhere we dined the wines from France and Italy and Germany were offered at retail prices, which was a relief after 8 months in Hanoi, where imported wines are taxed at 100%! We drank wines that I don’t even get to see here.
And everywhere, there were chips: French fries, that is. Most were okay. Not the thin, frozen McDonald’s-like fries that every French bistro seems to want to emulate now, but thick, skin-on, hand-cut and freshly fried chips. Earlier in the year, we were eating at the Tony-Bourdain-made-famous Banh Mi Phuong in Hoi An and sitting next to me was a young woman from Edinburgh who was headed to Phnom Penh. We traded restaurant lists and both of us were thrilled with the choices we made from each other’s lists. Among hers was the very casual gastropub — more at a neighborhood place — down in Bruntsfield on the so-called Holy Corner: McLarens on the Corner.
Mind you, I know my fries. I spent two years researching and writing my fourth book, The Fearless Frying Cookbook (1997), and have cooked dozens upon dozens of French fries. My latest book, Charleston to Phnom Penh (an anthology of my writing published by the University of South Carolina Press late last year), has an entry on fries that is an expanded version from 2008 of that cookbook entry with new information about the Paris restaurant where I had learned to cook them. I stand by my recipe. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to McLarens’s. I swear they may be the best chips I’ve ever had!
We didn’t even know we were headed to Brunstfield. We just set out walking one day after a performance on the University campus. It was a gorgeous day and we headed south on the Middle Meadow Walk, which is surrounded by college buildings, and entered a massive public park called The Meadows. People were picnicking, lounging in the sun, and playing with their dogs (Edinburgh is a very dog-friendly city). A cricket match was going on; it was our first. As we meandered on through Bruntsfield Links (another public park noted for its golf course), I remembered that there were a couple of restaurants that had been recommended to me in Bruntsfield and so we sought out McLaren’s.
We ate outside where the charming young university students who waited on us said that they had fallen in love with the city and had stayed through the summers. I have to look at my photos to remember the rest of the meal and I see that we both had bavette-frites (flank steak with fries). I do remember the Romanian pinot noir, which was excellent, as was the steak, but the fries I will never forget! Crispy on the outside and slightly puffy inside, but with a distinct potato flavor and texture that is so often missing in fries. I’m sure the potato variety was as important as the artful frying, but I even forgot to ask what kind they were. We had seen a dozen varieties at the Stockbridge Farmers Market.
I don’t know how they fried them, but my recipe appeared here on the blog in April 2008.