Why are Scottish councils so hopeless with public squares?
The latest affront to any sense of aesthetics can be seen in Festival Square in Edinburgh. The name of the current junkyard is Boxmall, described by the council as "a family-friendly market and picnic destination which showcases the very best of Scottish food, design and crafts together with fun activities for children". What a mess. It looks as though someone has dumped a load of portable cabins and salvage from a children's theme park, then done a runner.
What ought to be a convivial space for public recreation has become an in-your-face sprawl of inflatables and over-priced "artisan crafts". Boxmall is even more of an eyesore at night, when it is dead and closed. I'm puzzled as to why councils lack the vision to use their public spaces creatively for the common good. Instead, they rely on revenue-raising commercialism to "animate" them, treating us all as consumers, not citizens. They obsess over policing and crowd control, as though any assembly in an open space was a potential security threat. Trees? We can't have too many of those or how will we see what people are getting up to? Benches? Don't make those too comfortable; someone might sleep on them. Bins? No way, a terrorist might leave a bomb. Thanks to this counsel of despair, we are left with squares that are either eerily sterile and dead, or noisy, tacky, and intent on parting you from your money.
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It's time to do better, and if I were a boss of the Sheraton Hotel group, I would complain to Edinburgh City Council about the Boxmall bombsite it has created directly in front of One Square, the hotel's upmarket restaurant. Despite being in a chain hotel, its food is up there with the capital's best, and although the long rectangular space it occupies was once middle-of-the-road, drab and devoid of any atmosphere, it has been treated to a sweeping refurbishment, notably the addition of faux Doric pillars and striking light fittings in Spirograph shapes. Now its vista is what holds it back: concrete wall, corporate square (filled or not filled with super-sized tat, as the case may be).
What great food we had at One Square: lovely ingredients, beautifully fresh, cooked skilfully. Perhaps my favourite was the tomato soup, a crystal clear, onion-skin pink consommé that captured the sweet, sharp essence of ripe tomatoes, with tiny cut courgette, baby leek, and garden peas floating in it alongside a poached duck egg. This dish had a Japanese quality, with its pure flavours, pretty transparency and juxtaposition of textures: the silky egg white and velvety yolk against the clean liquid.
At £13, the Scrabster crab cake had to be excellent, and so it was, a substantial edifice of white claw meat so fresh it might have just been shelled, subtly aromatised with coriander, and lightly held together in the thinnest, crispest coating possible. Once again, it was delicate, but not dull, and a barely sweet, hauntingly piquant red pepper and cashew nut dice added a spike of excitement. The Cornish Dover sole, cooked on the bone, lubricated with brown shrimp, and parsley and caper burnt butter, was phenomenal. I have never eaten one fresher or larger. And the St Brides free-range chicken, served with griddled kohlrabi, firm, mealy summer peas, with a sensational chicken gravy and unctuous hazelnut dressing, maintained the same high standard in the poultry department. Side orders were not afterthoughts. Mashed Carroll's heritage potatoes, a suitably floury variety, had been passed through a potato ricer or mouli legumes, then left to the tender embrace of a generous measure of butter. Those welcome seasonal peas had been cooked with shallots softened with bacon lardons, then cosseted with cream.
On a hot evening we chose ice cream desserts, which was perhaps a mistake. They were fine - carrot and orange sorbet with cream cheese and walnut, and a svelte After Eight mint sphere with hot chocolate sauce - but didn't hit the high notes of the savouries.
Still, in an unpromising place, One Square is a find, a restaurant that's fit for much more than serving club sandwiches to jaded tourists.