Adventures on the Hitlist: Hellers Kitchen

by Christine Knight

As friends reading this post will know, for the last year or so I’ve been amusing myself by eating my way through the restaurants and cafés on The List magazine’s annual Hitlist for Edinburgh. For the uninitiated, The List‘s annual Eating & Drinking Guide includes a “best of” list of recommendations for each category it covers – bars, bistros, Indian, Scottish, and so on. When I began this project, the 2011/12 Hitlist included about 50 eating places I’d never visited. Neither my time nor my budget quite stretched to ticking off the Hitlist before the 2012/13 Eating & Drinking Guide appeared in April, so I’ve now moved on to the new Hitlist. This includes many of the same names as last year, but with some new entries to ring the changes, so I’m now back up to 33 venues to tick off before April 2013 – dining companions most welcome!

My Hitlist adventures so far have been of three kinds. There have been the amazing new finds I never would have discovered otherwise, that have made it all worthwhile. These include Bia Bistrot at Bruntsfield; Home Bistro on West Nicolson Street; Kampung Ali Malaysian Delight; and Passorn Thai at Tollcross (closely followed by Leven’s Thai, also at Tollcross, and Port of Siam at Newhaven). There have also been the notable disappointments, thankfully few and far between. (At this stage I’m resisting the urge to name and shame!) Finally, there have been a number of perfectly nice, tasty meals, in nice, pleasant surroundings, which I’ve certainly enjoyed, but haven’t been quite sure were worthy of Hitlist status. Hellers Kitchen on Salisbury Place fell into the latter category.

Hellers is a comfortable neighbourhood bistro-cum-restaurant with wooden tables, a split-level seating area, a welcoming vibe and friendly staff. It has a local feel, just far enough south into Newington to avoid being overly studenty or touristy, and it seems to attract a wide-ranging clientele – families, younger folk, older couples – which makes it neither fusty nor rowdy nor trendy, but something happily in between. The food is great value, with generous salads from £7.50 and mains from £8.95, and the blackboard carries a long list of specials in addition to the regular menu. The wine list is similarly good value: we chose a Sicilian white wine at £14.95, which was cheap, cheerful, well-chilled, and exactly what the doctor ordered.

With all this going for it, it’s a shame the food was a little underwhelming. Starters of a fishcake and fried squid were both crisp and tasty enough, served with a standard dressed leaf garnish, though the homemade tartare sauce with the fishcake was excellent (and I’ve roadtested many tartare sauces!). For mains, the smoked salmon salad with beetroot and “rockette” was generous and noticeably green and healthy, but needed some extra effort with presentation and flavour to reach restaurant quality. The salmon was flaked so finely it disappeared in the deep bowl full of rocket; the beetroot diced in 1cm cubes similarly sank to the bottom; and some chopped red onion wasn’t enough on its own to add interest to the whole. A seafood curry from the specials board wasn’t quite as flavoursome as it could be either. The vegetarian burger with butternut squash, goat’s cheese and red onion marmalade was definitely the pick of the bunch, with a standout combination of original flavours, and fantastic homemade chips, perfectly cooked and salted with the skin left on.

After the mixed main courses, desserts – luckily! – were decidedly moreish. We split a chocolate cheesecake with a toffee-flavoured biscuit base; a dense, creamy, milk chocolate layer; and a dark chocolate ganache topping. Served with homemade passionfruit sorbet, fresh passionfruit, and a few fresh raspberries, it could easily have been a flavour (or two) too far, but in fact was perfect gourmet comfort food. A trio of homemade sorbets also received the seal of approval.

Overall: do go to Hellers Kitchen. But as the name would suggest, don’t (like me!) try to be saintly. Give the salads and starters a miss, and go straight for a main course that comes with chips (burger, fish or steak). Order a cheap and cheery bottle of wine; most definitely save room for dessert; and I strongly suspect you’ll leave very happy.