While in Edinburgh two years ago, I went to buy a city restaurant guide at Cooks Bookshop, owned by Clarissa Dickson Wright, formerly one of the Food Network/BBC's Two Fat Ladies. They were a notoriously butter- and beer-swilling duo (until partner Jennifer Patterson died in 1999) who roared through the British countryside on a motorcycle and sidecar, from kitchen to kitchen where the heavy cream never ceased flowing heavily. Although the extremely, if very charmingly, opinionated woman running the shop wasn't Wright, unless she'd lost half her body weight, she did seem to be on a first-name basis with Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter, and most of America's other renowned chefs, and assured me that the shop had Edinburgh's best restaurant guide.
"Which one?" I asked, looking at the packed shelves.
"Oh, the written ones are all hideous," she dismissed them with an imperious wave. "Me."
All her recommendations were great, but the place I returned to again and again was a casual café whose specialty was mussels served in their own cooking pot, with homemade French fries and mayo on the side. "After a long day of walking and shopping, nothing is so restoring as a moules/frites," she declared, brooking no argument about this simple, satisfying French/Belgian classic. "And a glass of Sancerre, of course."
Of course. The problem was finding a satisfying source once I got home; after reading what Anthony Bourdain says about food poisoning via mussels in Kitchen Confidential, it'd seem best to never eat 'em out unless one spots an irresistibly tasty-looking specimen on someone else's plate ... which one almost never does, since average American cooks seem to consider the simplicity of moules/frites a chance to slack off.
But the roughly year-and-a-half-old Southwest Brasserie does a great version. There are a number of other house specialties at the misnamed Brasserie (A French brasserie's chief distinguishing characteristic is continuous service from early morning to late night; Southwest has normal restaurant/bistro limited lunch and dinner hours), and some of these specialties are even French -- beef bourguignonne and coq au vin, oui; honey roasted salmon, not rilly. But after hours of shopping down south, and fighting Route 1 traffic, it's one of the four indulgent moules/frites I crave. Varieties offered are basic Marinière (wine, shallots, butter, parsley, and thyme); zesty Provençal (tomatoes, shallots, scallions, basil); a creative, and creatively spelled, Bourguignionne (white wine, plus Burgundy's tasty traditional escargot treatment -- lots of garlic, butter, and parsley -- without the slimy snail); and, my favorite, poulette. Although the Brasserie's sauce poulette is actually made with poultry stock, it needn't be (the sauce is just a cream-enriched velouté, a basic béchamel made with either meat or fish stock instead of milk); at any rate no chicken flavor is discernible, just a smooth, sumptuous blend of white wine, butter, and cream, strongly flavored with shallots and fresh thyme. The sauce is substantial enough that, just slightly reduced and thrown over linguine at home, the leftover mussels make a lovely second meal; one $14 serving is more than ample for two hungry diners.
What truly makes the meal is the accompaniments (not all of them food; the French cabaret music is an atmospheric, refreshing change from usual restaurant fare, too). Homemade fries -- admittedly a bit limp/greasy when they're underdone; ask for them crisp -- come with a tub of complex, robustly mustardy homemade mayonnaise that'll make you wonder why ketchup bothers to exist. And the list of made-for-moules/frites wines available by the glass is unbelievable, as are their prices: an ultra-upscale Chassagne-Montrachet for $10; a brut Pommery champagne for $9; a lovely light Trimbach Pinot Blanc for just $5.75; and, for $8, the perfect Sancerre. The Brasserie's endive and blue cheese salad ($7), with field greens, pears, and glazed pecans, makes an ideal sweet/savory finishing touch.
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