Unfiltered: James Snowdon
The Edinburgh native and former manager of Fulham’s Harwood Arms co-founded the ultra-popular Edinburgh brasserie with Australian-born Lloyd Morse, previously of Spring. He talks to Douglas Blyde about storing wines and stealing naps in the vault of this former bank, mind-blowing coffee, and “floating about on a cloud of charisma”…
What is your vintage?
1988 from which Léoville-Barton has aged a helluva lot better than I have.
What was the first wine to move you?
David Leclpart L’Artiste ‘05 base in the early days of Bubbledogs. I’m still chasing that high. Prior to that, I drank some pretty crazy wines which I didn’t really appreciate in the early days. Working alongside Romain Audrerie at Hotel du Vin followed by Pierre Pattieu, I was very curious in my youth and they’d constantly put a glass in my hand.
How did you come to create The Palmerston? And, is JKS involved?
It was a seed head chef Lloyd Morse planted – a relaxed restaurant which Edinburgh didn’t have but seemed to be crying out for. Nothing to do with JKS. I’ve known the guys since the beginning and I’m very impressed with how they’ve dominated the London restaurant scene for the last decade with no signs of slowing down. Seamus Sharkey, who is the JKS Head of Wine, helped write the opening wine list. We wasted away years of our lives drinking some of the best bottles I’ve ever encountered so it only seemed right that he helped with the opening list. He wouldn’t let me do it without him.
How did your time at The Harwood Arms help inform your approach?
How Brett operates is very inspiring – he’s a man who’s always ten steps ahead while staying curious and constantly learning. The energy he has is unlike no other and if you get on board with him you’ll be in for a good ride.
Describe the list at The Palmerston?
Like the restaurant, it caters for everyone. We’ve got wines from all walks of life – we don’t specialise in one region and stay clear of shouting about whatever bandwagon everyone is jumping on. And there’s something to suit every pocket and palate. We are all on the hunt for those restaurants around the world which fly under the radar and have deep cellars with some of the finest wines in the world at accessible prices. I’ve a big Champagne focus which stems from working with Sandia Chang in the early days of Bubbledogs. We’ve easily the best-value Champagne list in Scotland and potentially the UK, and when it comes to fine wine we don’t mark it up massively which means people come in and actually drink it instead of it sitting in the cellar for years. The amount of “high-end” Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Italian wines we go through has surprised me! We’ve got an amazing group of wine-loving regulars who come to us knowing they’ll get a bargain and be able to try something that you can’t get anywhere else – and even if you can it’s usually massively marked up!
Is it difficult to sell English wine in Scotland?
Not hard at all; we only list Adrien’s wines (Westwell). They have a great reputation and people up here are up for trying most things.
Where in this former bank is the cellar located?
In the old bank vault, perfect for storing wines and for Lloyd to have a nap between services…
What is it like working with Lloyd?
It’s chill. The whole team gets on really well and we’re lucky to still have a big chunk of the opening team still with us. Our menu is always changing, as is the wine list. I’ve never been a fan of pairings/flights – Just eat what makes you feel good and have a bottle of the same calibre. Too many people trying to find the perfect pairings, claim that “X” should never go with “Y”. People like that need to loosen up a little, food and wine shouldn’t be picked apart and taken so seriously – it’s all meant to be fun!
What style of wine might not work with Lloyd’s cooking?
Based on my outlook on food and wine no such grape exists.
What is Lloyd’s favourite drink?
Guinness, Negroni and anything from Campbeltown. About as ground-breaking as The Palmerston. Just delicious things.
What drink do you crave after a long day?
Lager tops. What’s not to love about it? It’s the perfect drink/pick-me-up.
Why do you list only one sherry?
We don’t need a deep sherry list. A lot of places go down rabbit holes and end up with lots of random bottles gathering dust (not just sherry) on a shelf for many years. We’ve chosen one which we like. It’s also part of the Port of Leith development. They’re using the sherry and Port they’re bottling to season casks for when the distillery is up and running. The cocktail element was one of the requirements to get our investment – Mr. Burnsie himself, being our business partner, Alan Byrne, just wanted a cocktail on the menu with his name on it. That and a restaurant in Edinburgh he loved going to. Pretty sure we nailed at least one of them.
How does the beer focus work for you, and do many guests opt to divvy the sharing bottles?
They’re very popular. There’s a very strong beer scene in Edinburgh. The sharing bottles are all the doing of our assistant manager, Henry Lampitt. I knew very little about them before The Palmerston, but have now been converted to a Lambic lover.
What is Electric Spirit Co. and how interested are you in spirits generally?
It’s a gin made in Edinburgh by a good friend of ours, it’s simple and delicious (have you figured out the theme yet? We like simplicity). We’ve always had a straightforward spirit offering. Again, there’s a new distillery opening every five seconds, and we aren’t a gin bar so don’t need to have 20 different gins.
What is your favourite digestif?
Kümmel – got to be Wolfschmidt. I shared a bottle a few months back which was from the 1960s with John Baum of The Winemakers Club, Seamus and friends to celebrate John’s recent marriage. A very special bottle for many reasons.
What have the critics written about The Palmerston experience?
Chitra Ramaswamy (Sunday Times Scotland) described me as floating about on a cloud of charisma – a.k.a. just cutting about. Also the note on the wine list from Jay Rayner’s review – “And oh joy, there’s a list of familiar-sounding wines, which appears to have been designed to enable drinking rather than exploring. Sometimes – sod it, most of the time – I don’t want my horizons expanded, I just want a nice glass of crisp white. That’s what I get: a bottle of Arneis from Elvio Tintero. I liked it so much I took a detailed note. The charming waiter said it had a creamy end [Ali Duncan – he can be charming at times]. I’m not going to argue.” It has been great to see critics come in and understand the full package. Some people have called me some colourful names. I think it has been a bit of a shock to the system for people up here when we don’t stock things they want (Earl Grey, tea for example) and they question why. I tell them I hate the stuff, to which they respond with, “it’s not about you it’s about the customer.” When I tell them it’s my restaurant and I only want to stock things I actually like, some people have struggled to get their head around this concept. Most respect me for it.
Tell us something surprising about yourself?
I’m the least surprising person ever, what you see is what you get.
What is the last exhibition or concert or play you went to which made total sense?
There isn’t one, However, the last thing I had where everything just fell into place was DAK’s Grenadine. It’s a natural Colombian coffee from DAK which was the juiciest coffee I’ve ever had. It tasted like Ribena from the 90s. From there on in it flipped my world upside down when it came to coffee, and I’ve been chasing that high since…
What are your hopes for the future?
We’re opening a new bakery in the next few months. Darcie Maher who was part of the opening team is very talented at all things Viennoiserie, and we’ve teamed up with her and Chloe Black from Edinburgh Butter Company to launch her first standalone bakery in Stockbridge. I’ve a number of other projects in the pipeline, will start to get the ball rolling on them once the bakery is in full swing. People claim I’ve got ADHD and can’t stay focused on one thing for more than five seconds and get real bored, real quickly. For me, it’s more you’re only here for a tiny amount of time so may as well make the most of it. I want to put my stamp on this city. Too many people talk the talk and claim they’re going to open various things and don’t, or do the complete opposite and want to stay as a single unit, and five-to-seven years down the line they’ve realised they want to/need to expand and have sadly missed the boat. Long story short, you’ll be seeing a good few places pop up in the next three-to-five years that have me lurking in the shadows of a legend or two.
Who should prospective team members contact if they want to the team at The Palmerston and what qualities do you seek in them?
We need people who like to get stuck in and haven’t been brainwashed by the corporates/have egos. They think they’re better than they actually are. You can get lost in a big machine and when you join a small team who are all on the same wavelength, your flaws are exposed real quickly. No one is ever too good to roll their sleeves. Edinburgh is a small city and we’re an independent restaurant and bakery who are trying to offer the best they can. We’ve had many people who’ve joined the team and not lasted too long, to egos and many years of having hot air blown up their arses or people who’ve only ever known one restaurant, risen to the top and get a real shock when they move onto new pastures, quickly realising there’s other ways of doing things. We look for people who have the right attitude, like us they’re not looking to reinvent the wheel, people who just want to show people a good time and enjoy ourselves in the process. It’s not hard and it’s wild the number of people who can’t get on board with this!
The Palmerston – 1 Palmerston Place, Edinburgh, EH12 5AF; 0131 220 1794; firstname.lastname@example.org; thepalmerstonedinburgh.co.uk