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Browns, Edinburgh

Browns – 2/5

I’m back home for a wedding. It’s the night before the day, and about 20 of us have swelled this glassy back room. The 14-strong Browns franchise (est. 1973) is owned by titanic conglomerate Mitchells & Butlers, who’ve retained the ungrammatical name, the Cheers-esque logo and, alas, the uninspiring clutch of dishes. Groups like ours choose from the ‘Varsity Menu’ in an ‘institution’ declared, by the Good Food Guide of all places, to be ‘on a par with the Bodleian’. A strange treble allusion; though the Oxford outpost in fact looks remarkably similar to this northernmost one, with its bistro-y air, magnolia walls and leather, its distressed flooring and, currently, distressed diners.

Argh, the service! A party this size needs ongoing attention, but they dumped us in our weird conservatory an hour ago with nothing except a steadily diminishing phalanx of wine bottles. Copies of the aforementioned Varsity Menu were waiting for us on the tables. It is a list of consummate unoriginality, with carrot soup, cannelloni (unappetisingly dubbed ‘stuffed pasta’), grilled chicken… smoked trout salad… zzzzz…

At last, a lone waiter floats over to take down some orders. He moves with glacial velocity around customers who, by now, are distinctly squiffy.

Duck and pistachio terrine is a greasy splat of gluey, gooey meatpulp, the colour of dried blood, polka dotted with lurid pistachio kernels. It’s pointlessly splashed with pesto, and half of it sits on top of out-of-season, air-freighted asparagus. ‘Toasted ciabatta’ might be just that, although I fancy its crispness stems from the fact it’s utterly stale. Onion and orange marmalade doesn’t taste faintly of orange, but does lift the terrine somewhat. A relative-to-be pronounces thin but richly coloured carrot soup ‘flavourless’. Slow-roasted peppers (can any dish make the heart sink lower?) are as good as peppers, slow-roasted or not, can ever be – not very.

So far, so depressing. But the wine sure is flowing, and there’s a convivial, boisterous atmosphere even if Browns has done little to create it. Sad, prosaic-sounding ‘Main Dishes’ arrive. Guinea fowl ‘coq au vin style’ is a generous, tender portion of breast and leg, with good mashed potato and a mute, insipid sauce. No vegetables, nor were they on the menu: the bird needs greenery! ‘Roast Mediterranean vegetable tart’ (what a eureka moment that must have been!) is dazzlingly dull, edible in the way All-Bran is edible, calculated squarely to pacify the maximum number of people including vegetarians, with a flavour as flat and sparse as a nuclear test site.

Practically everyone else has ‘Browns steak frites,’ a listing that takes absent apostrophes to newly maddening depths. The meat emerges with those icky pats of fatty, semi-liquid flavoured butter, mealy, defrosted cash-and-carry chips and a few bits of watercress. In a restaurant like this, with the right equipment, cooking steak is as easy as toast. But the kitchen didn’t salt these first, nor was the grill hot enough to sear and seal the beef. No-one seems to mind while they have enough red to wash it down, and the novelty of so many people, new and familiar, is lifting the evening like helium. I wonder, though, if we’d be this forgiving were tonight a smaller, less relaxed party – where the numbers and the occasion hadn’t made it all so jovial.

By the time puddings arrive, the streets are spattered with rain and a chill has gripped the night, but who cares while the corks go ‘pluck!’ Profiteroles with chocolate sauce, pumped with an aerosolled cream, are pre-frozen, bland as gruel. Atop them, ‘warm Belgium [sic] chocolate sauce’ is a splurted frenzy of E-numbers and saccharine junk. Sticky toffee pudding is cloyingly oversweet, though nobody seems surprised.

But throughout, despite everything, we’re a happy, loud and laughing group. Plates are largely cleared. The restaurant isn’t a bad choice for numbers like this; although when the bill arrives, the damage is more than feels warranted. People change seats and talk excitedly about family, friends and all tomorrow’s parties – anything, it seems, but the food. Perhaps that’s intentional. Browns, which is apparently content with a menu devoid of invention, and with catering seemingly prepared and distributed by lobotomised sleepwalkers, might well prefer it if customers don’t worry too much about what they’re eating. Oh well: its loss. And the wedding was brilliant, anyway.

Browns, 131-133 George St, Edinburgh EH2
Tel. +44 (0)131 225 4442

Dinner for 19, excluding drinks and service, costs £427 (£40 a head all in).