The belly rules the mind
While it may be on a road less travelled, The Little Chartroom is a fabulous place to people watch, and eat
Article by Catherine Ferguson
For many visitors to Edinburgh, Leith Walk has been the road less travelled, but we took a wander up there to meet Roberta Hall-McCarron at her restaurant, The Little Chartroom, and we’ll most certainly be back.
Leith Walk is home to an extraordinary hotchpotch of people, tastes and flavours and despite the tempestuous weather and rain running down the windows, I couldn’t think of a better place to people watch than The Little Chartroom. Roberta just loves the area, “It’s a great part of town, it’s incredibly diverse but it also has the most wonderful community feel to it. Everyone who lives in Leith wants to see the area thrive and I’m so very happy to be a part of that.
Small, but perfectly formed, the blue hues and wall maps plotting Roberta’s journey so far offer more than a hint of all things nautical. In her own words, “it’s cosy friendly and intimate.” I’m delighted to say there isn’t even the tiniest hint of pretentiousness or food snobbery. With seating for just 18 and an ever-changing seasonal menu with no more than a handful of dishes for each course, they’ve got something pretty special going on.
Springtime asparagus is well up there on my list of favourite things to eat, but now I’ve tasted it ‘Little Chartroom-style’, I’m worried it’s never going to live up to my standards again. Oh so simply served with Saint-Felicien and onions – dammit it was good. My husband was equally content with his raw mackerel, potato salad, rhubarb and apple. The only disappointment was when he reached the end and desolately sighed, “I’m absolutely gutted that this is my last mouthful.”
With hake, mussels, broad beans, purple sprouting broccoli and samphire to follow, we were once again captivated by Roberta’s ability to take something so simple and create such a succulent, flavourful dish. There’s a definite hint of ‘little French bistro’, which is also reflected in the wine list. The intense fruit and minerality of Jean Dauvissat’s Chablis 1er Cru 2013, available by the glass, topped things off perfectly.
2018 was quite a year for Roberta. Not only did she and her husband Shaun open their first restaurant, but she was also awarded the title of ‘Young British Foodies Chef of the Year’. “I never expected to win it,” she tells us, “I just thought it would be a good thing to do. The YBF’s has so many different categories and lots of amazing judges from the food and drink industry.”
Roberta is undoubtedly a woman who likes a challenge. Getting married and opening a restaurant within a week of one another is testament to that. “It wasn’t intentional to do everything at the same time, it just panned out that way. The hardest thing for us was to remember what we had told one another and what jobs we both had to do. I was working during the day and Shaun in the evenings, so our paths weren’t crossing nearly as much as they should have been…given what was just around the corner!”
She tells us that her tastes are simple. If she were cast away on a desert island, fresh bread, soft cheese and hummus would be her weapons of choice. Nevertheless, she remains cognisant of the fact that the British public are more ‘foody’ than ever before. “I think this was a positive thing for me,” she says. People are more aware than ever of what restaurants are opening and want to be first though the door so this helped fill the restaurant early doors. We were very keen to get as much feedback as possible from our diners at the beginning and tweak things so obviously with them being more discerning, exposed to cooking shows and eating out more allowed for some fairly constructive feedback in order for me to improve the dishes at the beginning.”
While speaking to Roberta and Shaun, the enthusiasm and passion oozing from every pore is almost palpable, but they’re focusing on ‘here and now’ and The Little Chartroom is clearly a labour of love. “I think the most important thing for us at the moment is that we continue making the people that come through the door happy so that they come back time and time again and so that they tell all their friends and so on and so on. If we ever get to the stage where the restaurant is consistently running at full capacity then we will start thinking about the next challenge!”