Edinburgh is fast becoming the place to discover the fresh flavours of Scotland’s natural larder, as Grace Ma discerns one innovative plate after another
A timely look at why Edinburgh is fast becoming the place to discover the fresh flavours of Scotland’s natural larder
In Scottish writer Tobias Smollett’s final picaresque novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), protagonist Matthew Bramble declares that “Edinburgh is a hotbed of genius” after encountering the city’s numerous poets, philosophers, scientists and academics. Today, he would have included the city’s chefs as well.
With nearly 20 per cent of its half-million population in their 20s and 15 per cent in their 30s, the capital of Scotland is noticeably abuzz with a lively, youthful vibe and a skip in its step, even as you meander through centuries-old historical landmarks. The city’s dining scene is in a state of constant evolution; within three months of my visit, an award-winning restaurant shuttered permanently, a cocktail bar had changed its name and concept, and a culinary lab/events space went into full restaurant service.
But there’s no doubt that the inhabitants are revelling in a melting pot of high-quality plates across a variety of cuisines. Even international brands want in on the action, as evidenced by a host of London-based chains—wagamama, Dishoom and The Ivy
on the Square—that have recently landed spots in Edinburgh’s main commercial centre of St Andrew Square.
We started our culinary odyssey at the four-year-old Aizle (107-109 St Leonard’s Street), where 34-year-old local chef Stuart Ralston eschews a permanently printed menu, with a changing list of ingredients written on a blackboard. We ambled through a sixcourse meal that felt like a spring epiphany finished with an earthy flourish via scoops of chocolate ice cream topped with toasted barley sprinkles.
Six by Nico (97 Hanover Street) also operates a changing-menu concept with a different six-course theme every six weeks, featuring era-evoking titles such as Cooking Wonka and The ’70s Edinburgh. The new 70-seater Edinburgh branch, following the one in Glasgow, opened in April with a menu called The Chippie that was reminiscent of traditional Scottish chip-shop offerings, but focused on the finer details. Mustard-crumb sprinkles add texture to a flavourful 48hour braised steak pie; Shetland codfish is brightened by pickled mussel, fennel confit and stalks of samphire, and tastes like it was fresh from the ocean; and a woodchip-smoked sausage is balanced by the sweetness of caramelised apple.
Dinners with boisterous ruminations about the food aren’t usually my thing, but my mind might be changed after I went for one at Edinburgh
Food Studio (158 Dalkeith Road), an avant-garde, crowdfunded restaurant and food research lab started by two talented young chefs: Ben Reade, who used to lead the culinary research and development at Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab, and Sashana Souza Zanella, a chef trained in anthropology. The duo have hosted guest chefs, academics and poets for dinner events where friendships are forged over two long communal tables, as strangers bond over unusual subjects and food. Reade
explains, “We want people to see food as more than just a meal or fuel. At the same time, people can see that there are no shortcuts in the cooking. It’s really passion-driven.”
Our dinner featured a collaboration with Edinburgh-based beer connoisseur
Joe Dick, where the tasting menu was designed to match wild-fermented beer, rather than the other way round. There was plenty of fodder for vivacious discussions as we glugged through seven Belgian lambics, with courses ranging from a red mullet in black garlic and fennel bulbs complementing the intense tartness of a Strawberry Oudbeitje (a fruited sour beer by the Hanssens Artisanaal brewery) to a pear and pistachio ice cream that brought out the zesty side of a Timmermans Lambicus Blanche, the world’s sole white lambic beer.
For a more down-to-earth experience,
Wedgwood (267 Canongate) will have you taking a closer look at roadside vegetation. “We like to keep things as wild, fresh and local as possible, but served with our unique culinary take so that guests try dishes they won’t see elsewhere, often with a foraged ingredient,” explains chef-owner Paul Wedgwood, who often scours the shores, woods and river banks of Edinburgh with his team for edible greens.
Summer brings the flutters of chickweed with guineafowl, while sweet cicely is paired with venison. Our spring tasting menu included an educational bowlful of wild fibre, for which we had to google most of the names—purslane, ground elder, golden saxifrage—as well as succulent Scottish Borders beef and a tasty yet light butternut squash and spinach rotolo. Whatever you eat, leave room for Wedgwood’s very sticky toffee pudding. This intoxicating rendition was drizzled in butterscotch sauce with a tinge of Caol Ila whisky from the Isle of
Islay and we were almost tempted to order seconds.
Seafood lovers will relish the fresh, generously portioned platters at Ondine
(2 George IV Bridge) and newcomer White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar (266 Canongate), both conveniently located on the Royal Mile shopping belt and a straight road down from Edinburgh Castle. For a more intimate setting and local produce brought to life with a French flair, head to the 30-seater restaurant
Le Roi Fou (1 Forth Street). Proclaimed by its chef-owner Jérôme Henry as “a restaurant for the bon vivant serving classic, bourgeois style food”, it serves the most delicious plump scallops, hand-dived off the Highland coast, and grilled Gigha halibut with capers and brown shrimp. It may be all white linen and tulips in small delicate glass vases, but the service is casual and friendly. “Our direct access to the sea and land puts the best seafood, stunning vegetables and wild game at our doorstep,” raves Henry, who has worked the stoves of Les Trois Garçons in Shoreditch and Mosimann’s Club in Belgravia, both in London.
In fact, Scottish food is often so tasty even in its most basic forms that it can be profoundly bewildering at first. Take one of Edinburgh’s most renowned items: Scott Smith’s beremeal bread. The humble loaf is made from an ancient grain milled only in Orkney, off the northeastern coast of Scotland, and was the star menu item in his first venture, Norn— the aforementioned restaurant that closed within days of Smith’s unexpected departure after two years of making it one of the most talked-about establishments in town. It was the first thing loyal customers asked about
when he opened his new Fhior (36 Broughton Street) restaurant in June. Soft and light, it has an amazing depth of malty flavours and is a discreet foil to the rest of his seasonal dishes, which play off contrasting textures and flavours in local produce, such as lobster with salted rhubarb and barbecued cucumber, and white chocolate with seaweed and brown cheese.
For that special night out on the town, get a dinner reservation at The Balmoral’s
Number One (1 Princes Street). For a 21-yearold restaurant that has held its one-michelinstar ranking for 16 years, it certainly hasn’t rested on its laurels. Portions are generous, so we took our time with the signature whisky-smoked salmon with lemon purée and quail’s egg, hand-dived Dingwall scallops, tender juicy chicken with glistening breast meat and lightly crispy skin, and the freshest local produce of the season, all respectfully and elegantly cooked and plated. We still managed to squeeze in a satisfying white chocolate soufflé with rhubarb slices and macarons, banana mini-donuts and raspberry marshmallows from a trolley of petits fours.
In short, if you too revel in the juxtaposition of old and new culinary traditions, Edinburgh is just the place.
“We want people to see food as more than just a meal or fuel; it is also a social occasion. At the same time, people can see that there are no shortcuts in the cooking. It’s really passion-driven.”
GOURMET SURPRISE Expect an ever changing showcase of creative flavour pairings and passion-driven cooking at hotspots like four-year-old Aizle and crowdfunded restaurant-food research lab Edinburgh Food Studio.
INSPIRING PRODUCE Edinburgh is filled with tasty treasures, from speakeasies like Bullard & Worth Co to Wedgwood’s wild and fresh menu of dishes featuring local delights such as lamb’s tongue and foraged greens