Lady Libertine, Edinburgh

Lady Libertine inhabits a sepulchral basement that could double up as a set for an Edgar Allen Poe horror film. We instantly feel out-of-place. It’s 6pm, and there’s a strange dynamic here. A scrum of conservatively suited businessmen swarms the bar. Over the pounding music these men bawl their heads off like baritones, enjoying a few leisurely pints, probably so that they can avoid their offspring’s bath and bed routine under the guise of “working late at the office”. The bar is a 90% male zone but this metric is reversed in the dining area, where noticeably all-women tables, are united by their shared dress code- frocks, either floral or patterned- just the job for a Daily Mail photo shoot.

Shaking off the vaguely disturbing Stepford Wives feel we immerse ourselves in the menu, a superficial dip because it’s short. For some unfathomable reason, it’s Middle Eastern. Why not? But then again, why, given the inherent conservatism of the clientele. Mind you, Levantine cuisine continues to be fashionable.

Lady Libertine obviously puts quite an emphasis on alcohol sales, this being more of a bar with food than a restaurant, and we are those boring, unprofitable customers who aren’t drinking. But we sink our teeth into the fava bean falafels, which although fried too dark are otherwise pretty good, freshly herby and soft inside under their crunchy jackets. Their oiliness is lifted by a piquant green pesto, which might have a touch of preserved lemon in it, and pungent garlic yogurt. Satisfying, if unsubtle. Hummus topped with rose harissa and zaatar is quite a sight, squirts of some yogurty, green dressing and date syrup, lots of lemon, an edgy chilli kick, the obligatory handful of pomegranate seeds, crisped up triangles of flatbread. Sub-Ottolenghi cooking, but pleasant enough, and reasonably priced.

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But those bread triangles that give me an uncanny sense of déja vu, a flashback to tortilla chips, a creeping feeling that escalates when the lamb ribs arrive. Their greasiness is far too obtrusive, and I’m a fat fan. They look disconcertingly black and seem to have enough sugar and cinnamon to constitute an American pudding. And now the nagging connection pops into forefront of my brain. Although it nominally belongs to an entirely different culinary tradition, this food, and these ribs in particular- are awfully like those served at the second El Cartel, which I recently reviewed. Then I remember that El Cartel's parent company, the Bon Vivant Group, also owns this set up. So it’s as if the person masterminding the food behind this enterprise has transposed a template from one brand upon another. It reminds me of Barbie dolls. There’s beach Barbie, ski Barbie, hispanic Barbie, black Barbie, but they’re basically all Barbies. Lady Libertine’s menu shares El Cartel’s DNA, and having eaten in both, I’m tiring of this over-familiar formula, the lack of differentiation. Not that the food is bad here, it’s just repetitive, variations on the same thing; the flavours too crude.

Butternut and red onion sits on flatbread, not tortilla, but shares El Cartel’s pomegranate seeds and crumbled ewe’s cheese. This dish is over-spiced again; like El Cartel, it bombards the tongue relentlessly. Arayes, flatbreads again, this time stuffed with greasy minced lamb, which tastes like a very basic student flat chilli con carne, minus the beans, comes suitably squirted on: the green sauce again, tahini again, more dukkah. Repeat after repeat.

El Cartel doesn’t do desserts. Lady Libertine does a couple unenthusiastically: ice cream made by its parent restaurant, Le Bon Vivant. Mango and mezcal- here’s the Mexican tendency showing- is sickly sweet with a smoky, burnt tyre petroleum character, like cloying cough medicine trying to hide an unpalatable underlying taste. Rum and raisin, the dried fruits plumply soaked, is much better, although it looks and tastes like chocolate, not rum.

The noise at Lady Libertine is deafening. Hats off to our thoughtful waiter who manages to keep communicating clearly despite it. Viewed positively, this place isn’t expensive, and unless you ate here often, its formulaic quality wouldn’t trouble you. For me though, the expanding Bon Vivant family needs an infusion of fresh blood on the cooking front.

Food: 6/10

Value for money: 8/10

Atmosphere: 6/10

Service: 9/10

Joanna Blythman is the Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2018