We didn't make any plans for sightseeing until we reached Edinburgh. Right outside Arrivals at the airport is a tourist information centre. Husband bought some guide books and we booked ourselves for a 2 day hop-on-hop-off coach tour that would allow us to make endless coach trips around the city and see The Royal Yatch Brittania, Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace.
In contrast, I made reservations for restaurants before we left Paris. On the first night we ate at The Grain Store in Old Town, it is well known for using prime Scottish produce. It was very dim inside and very hot too, no airconditioning in the restaurant itself and an open window didn't help at all. Service was really slow and spotty. Still, they were very sweet to V, offering her free orange juice and not billing us for her tomato-sauce pasta.
I liked my starter of Scottish wood pigeon in puff pastry very much, the rich gamey bird offset by bits of raisins and chicory scattered about the plate. Main courses were a bit dull in comparison, husband's grilled wild trout was lovely enough but my main complaint was the heavy handed use of salt everywhere especially their puréed potatoes which was rendered inedible by the salt dump. That, coupled with the heat in the room made us want to flee as soon as we could, and we did, skipping desserts and coffee for some fresh air outside.
The next day we took the tourist coach to Leith. The Royal Yatch Brittania was fantastic, it is a MUST for anyone with any curiousity for big boats, the Royal Family and Royal Navy. The Queen's rooms were very modestly decorated for such a grand person, but she also has a Rolls Royce parked in the garage. There at at least three mess rooms for the different grades of officers and I was fascinated by their pantries and laundry rooms.
Leith itself is a modern residential and commercial area by the waterside. Most of the city's starred restaurants seem to be located here. We had reservations at one-starred Restaurant Martin Wishart for lunch so we made our way there by foot after visiting the Royal Yatch Brittania.
Inside it was blissfully cool, they have air-conditioning and the decor was ever so soothing coming in from our energetic walk, with its acres of wood, mirrors and white linen everywhere. Service was proper and attentive, and we soon settled in comfortably. It is a French restaurant, a bit strange coming from Paris ourselves, but I was told it is very good.
Our journey here was not entirely straightforward though. At first I couldn't get through their telephone line, so I gave up and instead made a reservation at 21212- this hot new restaurant gunning for 2 or even 3 stars- but they then called to say that children are not allowed in their listed building. They were gracious about this, and helped me to book a table at Martin Wishart which of course they also heartily endorse.
The tasting menu had all the nice things like foie gras, caviar, etc etc, but we thought we will try their lunch (for husband) and à la carte menus (for me) to test their diversity. A good sign came when amuse bouches were served. A trio of them, starting with cool gazpacho of something vegetal and refreshing, V liked that a lot. Then a little nugget of polenta cake topped with brown shrimps, yummy. The black muddy substance is made with haggis, the deep earthy flavours of the haggis somehow intensified but not overwhelming, the rice crispies lightening the total effect and playing up the contrast. A lot of words for a tiny mouthful of something really delicious.
From the à la carte menu I ordered pressé of vine tomatoes. Gorgeous presentation. The pressé was ambrosial, the absolute tomato flavours clear and pure. The green basil sorbet not too herby, in equilibrated balance with the tomatoes. The langoustines were, to me anyway, just gilding the lily. If I could get into the kitchen I would steal their entire batch of tomato water.
For my main course I ordered chicken. It is from Craigie farm, I don't know if that is famous or not but it was excellent chicken. So hard to get chicken right I think, this was very good, but the portion rather too generous for me.
Husband's main course was interesting. Haddock, without skin, sadly, but still beautifully cooked. Lovely on its own, even better paired with roast chicory and onion mash.
Husband's dessert. Custard poured directly into a well-risen souffle. Well made, without that eggy aftertaste that often spoil this experience for me. V and husband demolished this pretty quickly.
But V was even more interested in the first of my trio of desserts. A stunning jubilee of strawberries- meringue, sorbet, fresh, confited, soup with a tinge of lemongrass. I love English/Scottish strawberries, and this dish was a winner in terms of looks and taste. The other two desserts were good, I finished them all including the chocolate one, but this was the best. Husband conferred with the French sommelier who recommended Rasteau, a fortified wine from Rhone which was spot-on, the wine sweet and just sticky enough without being heavy.
The lunch at Martin Wishart's was decidedly a highlight for us. I think it is fully deserving of more than a star. The cooking is highly polished with a bit of an edge, the space itself a cocoon of calm and old-school hospitality and oh I nearly forgot to mention, but I saw someone order the cheese course: it came in a handsome trolley bearing rather a lot of French cheeses.
The following night we went to another one-starred place in Leith. The Kitchin is a rather different animal altogether. There is a timbre deck/lounge outside while inside it is darker, with more wood and a decidedly casual feel, not a white tablecloth in sight. So monotonous is the decor I thought we were in a hotel cafe.
It was quite full the evening we went, which may account for the staff's offhand attitude. First, we were reminded that they wanted their table by a certain time, and that really irritated me. I coudn't remember agreeing to this when I made the reservation, even if I did, it was still jarring to be reminded in such a brisk fashion. Well then, no need to go to the trouble to order the degustation menu, not enough time.
The menu itself is relatively short. It sounds adventurous enough but the results were quite hit-and-miss.The signature starter of crispy pig's ear with langoustine had enough going on with all that textural contrast, sensations and flavours without the added warm curry spiciness which tipped it overboard. If they wanted heat, they would have fared better with a sharper spice profile. Husband's crab ravioli in a lobster soup is fancy enough, they felt the need to enliven the broth with lime and lemongrass which turned the whole thing into a sort of laksa, rather old hat and again, unnecessary.
My main course of a whole grilled lobster was relatively fuss-free, thankfully. It was served without any other garnish, which made for a boring experience after the first few bites. Husband had a duck dish, also just OK.
We decided on dessert because I was not fully satisfied that I was being fair to this place, maybe there is yet some substance to this hype that we've missed out on. Husband's lemon tart with honey ice cream and preserved cherries sounded good on paper and it would have been brilliant if the individual items actually shone, after all, with such simple components you really have to excel at it. Sadly, not. My dessert of berries stacked in a tower also incited a sigh in me: I loathe stacked tower presentation, so passé. Digging in, I discovered in the middle layer a sort of cheesy mousse which was quite good, it really lifted the whole dish. Its delicate creamy and cheesy finish was lovely on its own and more than a match to the florid tart berries. A grown-up cheesecake, far more sophisticated than its name suggested. If only they demonstrated more of this type of cooking in their other dishes.
We didn't like The Kitchin much, obviously. It felt like a restaurant with too much attitude. There is youthful exuberance, and brash arrogance, the Kitchin is definitely in the latter category. It may have its fans, but count us out, please.
The Grain Store 30 Victoria Street, Old Town T: 0131 225 7635
Restaurant Martin Wishart 54 The Shore, Leith T: 0131 553 3557
The Kitchin 78 Commercial Quay, Leith T: 0131 555 1755
In Part 3, we'll get to the promised palace cafes and castle fries. Promise!