It happens every time and still it surprises me. Many moons ago I lived in Edinburgh, yet each time I return, the beauty of this city still takes my breath away. Standing on the brow of the High Street, looking down past the tenements to the blue gap beyond that is the River Forth, or peering over Hanover Street, across that same water to Fife — at almost every turn there is some spectacular vista: the castle, the narrow wynds (lanes) of the Old Town, the Georgian glory of the New Town, Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat, the folly of the National Monument on Calton Hill.
In the years since I left, ‘Auld Reekie’ has placed herself firmly on the map as one of Europe’s greatest gourmet destinations. It may be wee in terms of its landmass, but it has five Michelin-starred restaurants and a whole host
of exciting newcomers that have shaken down the firmament, harbingers of a new era of gastronomic focus and excitement.
Take Timberyard, a relatively young pup, but one that comes with a pedigree — this is the creation of the Radford family, the mother and father previously running Atrium and Blue, two of the city’s best restaurants, and now working with their sons and daughter. A farm-to-table ethos with an emphasis on sustainability has been passed on from Andrew Radford to his son Ben, a chef who embraces smoking, pickling and curing on site. From the ‘Bites’ section of the menu we have salt-cured beef, scattered with crunchy buckwheat and rendered smoky by ‘burnt oak oil’. Raw scallop, thinly sliced into petals, is sweetly fresh and served with a cheek-clenching apple sorbet, and fat flakes of juicy crab are dotted with penny-sized discs of brioche, cubes of horseradish jelly and a soft pear ‘cheese’.
Until recently, Scotland’s capital rarely lured names up from London, but the lovingly bouffed-up Caledonian Hotel (now a Waldorf Astoria) has reeled in Michelin-starred Jeff and Chris Galvin as executive chefs. The brothers have taken the grand dame of the Pampadour by her frail hand and re-introduced her to her beauty. The room is in powder puff colours, but the plates — from head chef Craig Sandle — are always vibrant.
Downstairs at Galvins Brasserie de Luxe, the pair bring the relaxed ambience of their London bistros, with a fabulous circular seafood counter and a particularly bargainous set menu of £19.50 for three courses. You may not see it listed, but whisper it, and the Galvin’s famed crab and scallop lasagne, an astonishing pillow of moussey loveliness enveloped between slips of silky pasta, may become your new favourite thing.
A wander up towards the Meadows will bring you to Aizle (an old Scots word meaning ember or spark), where chef Stuart Ralston has returned from Barbados with his mixologist wife Krystal to open a quirky spot offering a monthly-changing menu with no choices, just a list of ingredients subheaded ‘Harvest’.
First come four ‘snacks’, then three courses, dessert, coffee and petit fours for £45, and with paired drinks £65. There’s crispy pigs’ trotter, kimchi and radish as a snack and a stunning starter of bolognese of wild venison served with sheeps’ milk curd agnolotti and punterelle. These are followed by Loch Awe trout and Gartmorn Farm chicken, both technically inventive plates using the best of Scotland’s seasonal larder.
Local farmers, producers and foragers are also the main drive of the menu at The Gardener’s Cottage, an attractive restaurant created from a tiny little house designed by Edinburgh architect William Playfair and the one-time home of the man who tended the greenery around Royal Terrace. Vinyl plays on an old turntable and we swoon over potted smokie (smoked haddock), pumpkin and gingerbread agnolotti and pheasant with damson sauce. Sea buckthorn seems to be the nautical berry de nos jours in Edinburgh and here it is made into a ripple ice cream served with a glorious smoked pumpkin cake.
Down the hill in Stockbridge, we shelter from a snell (keen) wind in the Scran & Scallie (meaning food and scallywag), a traditional pub with a large dining room under the auspices of Michelin-starred chef Tom Kitchin and Dominic Jack. There’s beef tartare where the raw meat seems to sing of recent pastures, a steak pie of Desperate Dan proportions, the pastry held up by a piece of bone marrow. The fish pie is pronounced ‘the best the eater has ever had’ and the rest of the moreish deep-fried pigs ears and bubbled pork scratchings are taken home in a doggy bag. The ambience here is cosy and very distinctly Scottish — there’s a lot of lovely Harris tweed and a scattering of sheepskin — wrapped in a hearty conviviality.
In between the ‘big’ meals, I hop around Edinburgh’s cheaper eateries, wolfing a spicy Scotch pie with crusty pastry at the Pie Maker on South Bridge; heating my bones with a lush hot chocolate at Mary’s Milk Bar, a vintage
gem of a place where Mary Hillard makes her own chocolates and ice cream in a space out the back. My tastebuds are tickled by the flavours at Ting Thai Kitchen, with its vast, cheap menu of spectacular, spicy dishes up near the university.
From the top of Calton Hill, I look again at the city’s handsome views. Oh, my darling Edina, why did I ever leave you? thisisedinburgh.com
Five Edinburgh food finds
Deli on the High Street, selling fine Scottish food and drink, including haggis, black pudding and porridge.
Purveyor of fine Scotch pies from just £1.10, including juicy steak pies for £2.20.
The Whisky Shop
Enjoy a wee dram of Scotch whisky, and buy a miniature or a full-size bottle.
Ian Mellis curates a fine selection of Scottish artisan cheeses for you to try here.
Mary’s Milk Bar
Home-made gelato and chocolates are served with hot and cold drinks in this vintage milk bar.
Four places for a taste of Edinburgh
Craving the natural larder of his homeland, chef Stuart Ralston gave up cooking at Sandy Lane in Barbados to return to Scotland and open Aizle, a charming little place where ingredients are the focus. Here there is no set menu or choice, just a list of locally-sourced produce in season — the dishes themselves are a surprise. Cocktails are devised by wife Krystal, a mixologist, who combines unusual flavours in a refreshing manner.
How much: Four courses, plus snacks, coffee and petit fours, from £45 per person.
Named in honour of its past use as a lumber warehouse, this cavernous dining area is warmed by a woodburner in full fettle, while tartan blankets adorn the backs of chairs. The kitchen uses mostly Scottish suppliers, but there’s a Nordic influence to the cooking. The menu is in four sections: ‘Bite’, ‘Small’, ‘Large’ and ‘Sweet’. There’s John Dory burnished brown but lightly cooked, scattered with dozens of brown shrimp and sea purslane, and a dessert of sea buckthorn granita, whipped crowdie (Scottish cream cheese), buttermilk ice cream and a slithery sheet of meringue.
How much: Three courses, from £29 per person.
The Gardener’s Cottage
Walk through a vegetable and herb garden that provides some of the ingredients used in the little restaurant housing three communal tables of 10 and a lovely old record player softly issuing great vibes. Run by chef duo Ed Murray and Dale Mailley, this place offers guests the option of a set menu of four courses plus coffee and petit fours for £35, or à la carte from a daily changing menu. Think starters of ham hock broth with mussels and mains of halibut, oats, rhubarb and Jerusalem artichoke. Tables hand-crafted from reclaimed teak from the Glasgow-built SS Olympia, are dressed with antique silverware and vintage crockery.
How much: Three courses, from £27 per person.
The Scran & Scallie
Declaring itself ‘Edinburgh’s leading gastro pub’ may seem a wee bit cheeky but the Scran & Scallie hits the mark when it comes to good, honest Scottish cooking. Hearty is the theme here, in terms of decor, quality of produce and portions. Steak pie would more than fill the belly of a giant, and beef tartare and bone marrow toast is truly spectacular. The dining room is off a wee pub — all part of the burgeoning Tom Kitchin empire. A fine selection of ales are also served.
How much: Three courses, from £21 per person.
Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)