The Colonnades

Signet Library, Parliament Square, Edinburgh

0131 226 1064

Lunch|: £20-£25

Food rating: 5/10

THE Colonnades is a handy venue, just off the tourist-clogged Royal Mile. It's sumptuous too, set in the lower chamber of the Signet Library with its fluted Corinthian columns and gilded balustrades. Thickly carpeted, the acoustics are good. Soothing, I thought, no din.

It features high up TripAdvisor’s Edinburgh restaurant listings, never a good sign, but then foreign tourists are suckers for heritage Britain packages and The Colonnades offers "Edinburgh’s finest afternoon tea" apparently. That’ll be £30 a pop, thank you very much, or £32 from August. The Colonnades must be firmly ensconced in tourist guides. Working your way up from the Tower of London via Jorvik, Beatrix Potter’s house, taking in the Scottish capital before heading on up to Loch Ness, you’ll be burning money anyway, so what’s another £32 frittered away on fondant fancies?

But I should have known better. Colonnades is run by "award-winning caterers" armed with a Royal Warrant to HM, The Queen. The word "caterers", as opposed to "cooks" or "chefs" should raise alarm, and I hear that the sandwiches at royal parties are institutional at best.

In no time the place gets on our nerves with its musak, the sort you’d get in a Harrod’s lift or a "diamond-class" airline lounge, and its atmosphere, like the day room in a sanitarium for millionaires. Our legs are crushed up against the heavy ornamental legs of the table, and the tabletops are mirrored for heaven’s sake. Maybe it’s all about what’s under your plate, rather than on it, at The Colonnades. The anarchist in me wants Banksy to drop by and rough up the airbrushed grandeur with his spray can. At lunchtime, this grand tomb is so somnolent that when we arrive, it seems closed. Obviously time-pressed QCs have written it off as a quick business lunch option; service is gratingly slow.

The baby food smoothness of the caramelised cauliflower soup (a Farrow & Ball shade of buff, with a whiff of truffle, poured from a silver jug), is testament to the power of a Thermomix. A teaspoon-sized quenelle of pounded hazelnut pesto imports welcome texture. Stray flakes of Mull cheddar and two slices of dehydrated mushroom distract from the drabness.

Service is of the functional “Who’s having the X?” variety. A plate with three very small, black (squid ink) tortellini is plunked down, a colourful riot of fishy foam, and blobs of a pepper purée that overwhelms the scallop filling. A fiddly plateful, various elements tweezered and squirted into place. Relieved of the obligation to look like a magazine cover, stripped down and simplified, it might just be enjoyable.

Spring vegetable dumplings are an exercise in unbridled prissiness. Irredeemably bland, the said dumplings flank an oblong of tasteless tofu. “Fragrant consommé”, poured charmlessly from another fussy silver jug, tastes and smells like very dilute vegetable stock. The greasy-tasting fried dumplings predictably soften unappealingly in the liquid. Two halves of kindergarten carrots, one baby corn cut in two, two or three anaemic fledgling mushrooms, and a gaping pea pod disgorging three – or was it four – peas, stares up from the plate, a satire on silly, affected presentation.

Tiny violas appear on most dishes, even the pork fillet. Its "barbecue" gravy has all the subtlety of Daddy’s Sauce, a quenelle of something orange-coloured (pineapple maybe?) takes me back to the haunting aura of TCP. Raw kohlrabi is never a winner in my book, and cut with a melon-baller it’s downright ridiculous. Potentially reasonable pulled pork that has a vague cumin presence is ruined by its fried breadcrumb batter, which flags up than an oil change is overdue.

"Poached rhubarb mess" constitutes a retro rhapsody in Barbara Cartland puce. More violas, minarets of powdery meringue and dry macaroon in My Little Pony pink, cubes of jelly with a bubblegum taste, speckled chocolate squares, crumbled shortbread, and cloying rhubarb sorbet swamp what should be the main event: rhubarb in a recognisable form. The best thing about the sickly sweet chocolate mousse dessert is the solitary, intact, alcohol-soaked cherry, not the gritty "cocoa soil" or the vapid cherry sorbet.

This is one I’m happy to leave to the tourists.