Chez Mal, Malmaison, 21-22, St Andrews Square, Edinburgh

Talented restaurateur Ken McCulloch launched the Malmaison group in 1994, and lodged this boutique chain in my mind as offering a real possibility of competently cooked, classic brasserie food, served in a stylish setting.

Mr McCulloch, always more of an inspired innovator than a finisher-completer, sold it off in 1998.

I still have a wistful expectation for the Malmaison to be what it initially was. Even so, this miserable dining experience in the new Edinburgh city centre Malmaison is a shocker. I hadn’t realised that the Malmaison had got this bad.

This new Malmaison has a period facade, but if there remains any of the architectural details we associate with this prime location, they’re well hidden.

Where the original Malmaisons benefited from chic interior design, this place is a tacky riot of discordant velours and tawdry glitz. The dining room has no natural flow or beauty to it. It groans under the weight of the floors above it, as if they’d packed in the maximum number of rooms.

I’d like to meet the people who made these ‘artisan stonebaked breads’, described as ‘Altamura’ and ‘sourdough baguette’, to ask them what went wrong.

Clearly reheated, they’re biscuity-light, this is Europap fit for Club Class airline procurement. There’s not enough of the parsimonious half of a thin cylinder of English butter that comes with them; the olive oil is average at best. It's £4.50 for this.

Yet I see indie restaurants serving true artisan bread from outlets such as the Freedom Bakery and Company, sometimes for free, often for less than this. But this breadbasket illustrates the accountant’s algorithm that seems to drive the Chez Mal offer: buy cheap, sell dear.

You’ll wonder why on earth I’ve chosen this ‘Winter leaf salad, barrel-aged feta, clementine, candied walnuts, fennel, and pomegranate’. It’s just such a deadbeat, passionless menu, and I’m trying to avoid the farmed salmon and tiger prawns.

It comes within minutes, a dump of ruby chard that’s barely dressed, topped by a stingy amount of inexpertly cut clementine flesh, a measly dusting of pomegranate seeds, and very little fennel. We play hunt the nuts. Nuts are expensive so I guess they’re rationed here. When I find a bit it tastes as if it had come into contact with an oily fish, which makes me worry that the kitchen’s segregation methods aren’t all we might hope.

We palpate the cheese, which is unlike any authentic barrel-aged feta I’ve encountered: soft, not especially salty or crumbly, and more like a neutral goat’s cheese.

At least we can eat the ‘roast’, more like baked, cod, even though it’s largely flavourless and faintly whiffy. The butterbean, tomato and overcooked kale stew it sits on is what I’d expect from a first year student flat.

How bad can a £17 burger be? Dire, is the answer. This grey, desiccated disc of ruined meat, this bun you might buy in the cash-and-carry with a best before date set for some distant future date, floury Piccalilli with enough vinegar to shock the tastebuds, saccharin mayonnaise, a stingy slice of cheese, and last but not least, bacon that tastes, strangely, of almost nothing. How do you even do that?

‘Braised beef short rib cottage pie, Guinness, onion & glazed carrots’ commands the same tariff, a dolly’s tea party serving of sticky meat topped with dried out minarets of piped mashed potatoes, and four kindergarten-sized carrots. Vegetal infanticide apart, for those of normal appetite this dish will need side dishes, here called ‘accessories’ at £4 to £5 a pop.

Distinguished chocolatiers, Valrhona, would wince to see this heap of sponge and gluey glaze that tastes of the fridge go out with its respected name attached. And this green around the gills custard? That’ll be the ill-conceived pistachio crème brulée.

I wish there was comfort to be had from cradling this clunky cappuccino cup, wherein a teabag slowly stains the tepid water, but there just isn’t.

Joanna Blythman

Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2018

Chez Mal, Malmaison, 21-22, St Andrews Square, Edinburgh 0131 370 4600

Food: 3/10

Service: 5/10

Atmosphere: 4/10

Value for money 2/10