St Andrew Square is a landmark open space at the east end of Edinburgh's New Town. You can't miss it: it comes complete with the imposing Melville Monument, a fluted column topped off by a larger than life statue of Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville. Think "Nelson's Column", but only about 80% of the size. Running north from the north-east corner of St Andrew Square is North St Andrew Street. On its right, abut half way down towards the end of York Place, is Zest Restaurant. Occupying the ground floor of the corner of a block, it's not immediately attention-grabbing when seen from the outside. But beyond the door is another world where on our visit we ate what can only be described as the best Indian food we've ever enjoyed.
The location is an interesting one. It's in one sense very central: it must be less than a five-minute walk from Waverley Station and is next-door to the bus station. Yet it's also slightly out on a limb. And in recent years this part of town has seen more than it's share of construction work. Edinburgh's trams run right past the door. That's great now, but was less so during an extended period of construction prior to their opening in 2014. Even when we visited the bus station to the south was sheathed in scaffolding, and the huge project to replace Edinburgh's St James Centre was well under way not far to the east. In time this will have the effect of shifting the balance of this part of the city in a way that makes Zest's location more focal.
What makes a restaurant excel? There can be a number of reasons, but one that always tends to be present is "passion". Zest is owned by Anis Chowdhury, and his larger-than-life presence and his passionate enthusiasm for the food he serves to his customers go a very long way towards explaining why Zest is such an outstanding place in which to eat.
We visited on an early evening on an October day when summer had made a brief reappearance in Edinburgh. The first thing to note is that while the exterior of the restaurant is, well, grey, the interior is both attractive and welcoming: nearly as welcoming as the staff.
We began, of course, with popadoms and a range of accompaniments: onions, chutney and lime pickle. It's an act of faith to draw large conclusions from an appetiser, but the freshness of the accompaniments and lightness of the popadoms did begin to raise expectations. To get a feel for the style of cooking at Zest, we each had starters that combined small elements of a number of the items on the menu. The result was amazing. A king prawn puri on a puffed fried bread; an onion bhaji; chicken kebab; and lamb kebab. All beautifully presented and sparklingly fresh. And quite outstanding.
For the main course we again had a "mix and match" meal that showed off just how good the food at Zest really is. The garlic nan and basmati rice were dishes you'll have encountered before. Suffice it to say that the rice was beautifully prepared. And that's before we move on to the main dishes. Polok Pamir is a spinach and cheese dish that made a very nice vegetarian accompaniment to the meat dishes described below. The first of these was Green Herb King Prawns: king prawns with tomatoes, green peppers, coriander and spring onions. The Sir Walter Scott Lamb Sharisha is one of the signature dishes at Zest. Think of beautifully tender lamb cooked in a mustard sauce with spices and onions: it is as delicious as it sounds. And then there's the P297 Special. Anis Chowdhury has worked as an Edinburgh taxi driver, and P297 is his badge number. The dish that means so much to him comprises slices of marinated chicken stir fried with peppers, onions tomatoes and coriander. The result more than justifies the restaurant's faith in their star dish.
We finished our feast with kulfi, followed by coffee. Even the coffee was memorably good. Zest is a restaurant that excels in every way; and one we'd wholeheartedly recommend to anyone looking for Indian cuisine in Edinburgh.