This post was contributed by my friend and frequent dining partner, Hannah Pinguelo.
I am proud to be among those titled ‘dining partner’ on this blog. I would happily take that moniker over any other in my life; use it in my eulogy. Mimi has taken my lifelong infatuation with food and cultivated it into a blatantly public affair. Since the return of my companion to her own eating grounds, I have baptized myself in the depths of foodie Instagram and obsessively researched new opportunities in my new home of Edinburgh, Scotland.
It has taken several months, but I have found new dining partners to alleviate the insecurity of being that one person eating all alone, taking pictures of every course that I promise myself I will be okay with being someday, but I am just not there yet and it’s fine. It’s fine.
So I took a friend to The White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar on The Royal Mile. As postgraduate students on a beans-and-toast budget, the Buck a Shuck weekday happy hour spoke loudly and clearly. We arrived at 4:45pm (definitely late for our reservation) to a quiet, but certainly not empty dining room. Far from a hidden gem, this trendy restaurant with its soothing dark palette and touch-of-the-industrial decor is a respite from the busiest road in the city.
While some sat for a quick glass of champagne and an after-work plate of oysters, other diners were like us, happy to indulge in a very leisurely early bird dinner. Unsurprisingly, this oyster bar specializes in Scottish seafood and has a relatively short menu of locally sourced small plates, oysters, and specialty cold and hot platters. While the platters are clearly a house favorite, my companion and I opted for a variety of small plates and oysters.
The Royal Old Fashioned
I chose to pair my oysters with a house take on a personal favorite, The Royal Old Fashioned. The mixture of a 12-year-old scotch, sherry, sugar, orange, bitters, and a mysterious whiskey mist was unlikely to displease me, but it instantly rivaled any Old Fashioned I have encountered. It was rich and smooth, yet retained the texture that a good scotch brings.
However, there is a reason this drink appears on the dessert menu as well as the cocktail list; it is undeniably sweet. While the syrupy sherry suited my indulgent mood, a more embittered person would choose something—well—more bitter to start a meal.
A palette of oysters
My cocktail was accompanied by what every other table, save one, ordered: one of each variety of oyster for each person at the table. Our four oysters each came in neat pairs with the traditional accuraments of garlic mince, lemon, and tobasco. The waiter kindly shared a trick to remembering the varieties: LCCB—Loch Fyne, Carlingford, Calendonian, and Barra.
First, this was the most diverse palette of oysters I have ever experienced. Each was distinct and so clearly representative of an individual class. I was not left guessing if the only difference was size or some vague consistency I was supposed to be able to discern. Each oyster was tauntingly bursting with flavor and secrets of how subtle environmental shifts can make very unsubtle differences.
We started with ‘L’ and I ate counter-clockwise. This was the perfect oyster in my opinion. A little creamy, a little meaty, and yet not without the sacrifice of the briny sea. So unusually balanced. To do it again, I would have ordered two more of these and was only restrained by the recent memory of reciting half the tapas menu to the waiter moments before.
The first ‘C,’ Carlingford, sweeter, more textured. Delicious but less notable. The Calendonian stood out as remarkably creamy, smooth, and palatable. My companion made the apt observation that if our friends tried this oyster as their first oyster, they could never object. It lacked any slimy, or fishiness and melted away.
The ‘B’ made me wish I had forgone the toppings so that I could get a better grasp on the unexpected complexities of the minerals in each chew. This oyster was delightful and confusing; I am still not sure what happened, but I liked it. This oyster was not creamy, but not chewy. It was not mild, but not briny. The best I can offer is a sensation that it was ‘seasoned from the inside.’ Eloquent I know.
Anyway, at £1 a piece, I expected oysters and hoped for a little variety. I received a crowning achievement that reminded me why the Queen might want to claim everything in the ocean surrounding Scotland.
Sourdough and seaweed butter
Oysters aside, I am always a little suspicious when the most memorable part of a meal is the bread. Bread is satisfying and a good restaurant should have good bread. A mediocre restaurant can create a reputation on bread alone. I do not reminisce about Olive Garden for whatever 2-for-1 nondescript pasta I ate there last, but I do occasionally crave one more breadstick.
This bread makes me put effort into remembering the rest of the small plates. It was simple enough, a thoughtless addition to my order. Sourdough and butter. Well, charred sourdough, grilled garlic, and seaweed butter. Always a bit of a tough sell when each half slice of bread costs £1, I have no regrets.
When in Scotland, scotch an egg. In general, I find scotch eggs unobjectionable. Hearty meat, covered in crumble, wrapped around a potentially soft boiled egg. In theory, a reasonable treat; in practice, these are often served cold and I must bravely ignore the congealed sausage fat while I reconcile the satisfying taste with the sneaking aversion.
This upgraded crab version seemed the perfect solution to my scotch egg woes. It was warm, generously stuffed with pink crab, and gushing with a perfectly timed soft egg. The first bite was pleasing, but soon completely overwhelmed with an herby aftertaste that became rather overpowering. By far the best scotch egg I have had, it was just unbalanced. The paired mayo was yummy, but so mild that I had forgotten it had wasabi until I looked it up just now.
The baked scallop provided a rich, luxurious presence that mingled well with the cold, damp weather. However, I again struggled to find the perfect balance in a bite. The perfect portion of crisped mash, cream, and just a nibble of seared scallop was exactly what one needs on the 15th consecutive day of torrential rain. Creamy, potato-y goodness that is still light and lifts the spirits.
Sadly, a bite proportioned with just a little too much scallop or an accidental thinner part of the sauce left me briefly reconsidering if we still think dairy and shellfish is a good idea—a thought swiftly banished by the next perfectly formed forkful.
At first glance, the wee portion of bass, three morsels of fish roughly the size of a 50p coin, sharing a plate with four halves of a purple grape seemed like a child’s dinner gone pretentious. But I judged that book cover harshly and my pride took a devastating fall.
While the caviar, pickled grapes, and bass with crusted edges could not stand alone, together they created a remarkable invention. A truly unexpected cameo of the beloved sweet and salty combination with the addition of a soft and crunchy dichotomy, I was completely won over by this tiny dish. I refuse to do the math on what my half of six bites was worth; I am content and full of humility, surprise, and a happy tummy.
Steak and oyster
I am torn in my feelings towards the beef and fried oyster. The sight of those seared strips of beef and plump, bulging oyster excited me. I was more than ready to reprise my experience with oysters here. My small taste of just the beef with horseradish left me a little downcast. The steak was seared to the point that it was a bit cold and I had hoped for some bite or vibrant flavor from the horseradish that just wasn’t there. The oyster alone was overwhelmingly salty.
Fortunately these issues were easily redeemed by following the cardinal rule of a well-formed plate; eat it together, silly. I did and it was great. After pointing out this philosophy to my dining friend, we both appreciated the velvety horseradish in harmony with the salt and the understated beef letting the oyster dominate.
A destination for oyster lovers
For me, The White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar is a must for oysters and cocktails. I would encourage an exploration to the small plates menu to supplement an after work drinks and nibble or it would be the perfect stop for a post high street shopping day. The prices are not extravagant: £9-£14 per small plate at a good seafood restaurant is reasonable on or off the tourist center and you can’t beat weekday Buck a Shuck happy hour.
The portions definitely exist on a sliding scale, but I left full at 7pm and am still full while writing this five hours later. No complaints here. Personally, next time I want a full dinner, I think I will try the seafood platter and see if I find the answer to my quest for perfect balance.
About the Author
Hannah Pinguelo studied for her PhD in Literature in Edinburgh, Scotland and now lives in Cambridge, England. She spends her time teaching, writing, and eating. She rarely gets to combine the latter two; but when she does, it feeds her soul.
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