Wine and Food at the Edinburgh Festival
My husband and I recently spent a week at the Edinburgh Festival, interweaving going to Monteverdi operas with having lunch at some celebrated restaurants. We booked two of them, both of which have Michelin stars, several weeks before driving up, and all three turned out to be part of one organization. On our first full day we had lunch at The Kitchin at Leith, and it was one of the best meals that we have enjoyed for some time. The chef, Tom Kitchin, is, of course, widely known, but Edinburgh is nearly seven hours from South Oxfordshire, so we have never had never had the opportunity to visit it. We had the tasting menu (£85) and the cheaper of the two wine menus (£60 rather than £130), and in the latter respect, I must say, we did not suffer.
The Kitchin at Leith
The tasting menu began with a glass of champagne, and then proceeded, over nearly four hours (we asked for it not to be too rushed), with amuse bouche, pre-starter, starter, main course, pre-dessert and dessert. We were also offered the cheese trolley, an optional extra, but I could only look at it in dumb disbelief. The waitress did not seem too surprised.
Several of the dishes are worth a mention. I am not myself keen on oysters, but they served them three ways, raw with caviar, in a mild cheese gratinée with escargot butter, and – my favourite – wrapped in pancetta. The steamed halibut came with a courgette flower stuffed with marscapone, but what was unexpected and wonderful was the roasted grouse. It had been killed four days before, and was thus fresh and not hung, and – if you are not a devotée of rotting meat – quite wonderfully flavourful and tender. The raspberry and Banyuls granita deserves to be replicated elsewhere, and I won’t go on, as I could, about the Millionaire’s Shortbread.
They do not have a head sommelier, but have three of, apparently, comparable quality. We had a quite engaging sommelier, by the name of Michal. He was very knowledgeable. Many sommeliers are, but his ability to discuss a wine was a touch unusual, both in his detailed knowledge and in his enthusiasm. Again, many sommeliers are enthusiastic, but he was also very generous. Once he realized that my husband and I were both keen and had a bit of knowledge and a lot of appreciation, he brought out several other wines to taste, including two of which I had no knowledge. I was particularly struck by the Soli 2016, a Bulgarian white wine made up of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer grapes. This was the first Bulgarian wine that I had drunk since the Bulgarian Red of my student days, and it was a revelation. I will certainly track it down.
One aspect of our lunch that struck my husband was the quality of the service. It was uniformly good, and interchangeable: that is, it didn’t depend on the quality of one waiter or waitress, but was demonstrated by all. We had a quick chat with the manager, Sylvain Ranc, and he noted that they had much less turnover of staff than did most other UK restaurants. I’m not surprised. It was a lunch to remember.
Two days later we had lunch at the Castle Terrace restaurant. To our surprise, almost the first person to come to our table was Sylvain Ranc, who turns out also to be one of the two directors of the company of which The Kitchin is a part. Apparently he involves himself in the workings of both restaurants regularly in order to maintain quality. Again, we decided to have the tasting menu, which, as was the case earlier, is a surprise, in this case ‘Chef’s Land and Sea Surprise Tasting Menu’. The menus are very different, but the food is equally delicious. In this case, the sea won out, with Arbroath smokie, salmon, scallop and cod dishes versus pork and a risotto with slices of Scottish beef. (The Kitchin had served its risotto with cubes of crispy ox tongue; this, plus the afore-mentioned grouse, were the only meat dishes, versus oyster and halibut.)
The Castle Terrace
The Castle Terrace has a head sommelier, Joël Bastian, who is terrifically knowledgeable. Customers here also have a choice of two wine selections to accompany the tasting menu, and as before, we chose the cheaper option. There was a point here. It is relatively easy to select a series of expensive wines to accompany the dishes, but if you have given yourself a strict cost limit, yet the wines must be equally interesting and delicious, knowledge and judgment are even more important. In this M. Bastian was certainly successful, beginning with Guerrouane, a wonderfully drinkable white wine from Les Trois Domaines in Meknés, Morocco, made from Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and ending with Pink Moscato from the Stella Bella Estate in Margaret River, Australia. This was another lunch to remember.
We decided to have lunch on our final day at the third member of the group, The Scran & Scallie, which calls itself a public house with dining. It was much more informal – I had an alluring steak pie and, I admit it, sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream – but the wine list, whilst considerably cheaper than those at the other two restaurants, was interesting in its own right. It included at least one of the wines that I had liked particularly at The Kitchin, the Bulgarian wine Soli. I mentioned this, and it turned out that the wine had been the discovery of one of the chaps at the pub. The Scran & Scallie has been referred to as a gastro-pub, and I admit that it may fall into the category, but it wore its quality with a light touch. What they do push is their Scottish identity, and the dialect on the menu may cause the non-Scot to blink, but much may be forgiven for the atmosphere, the food and the wine.
The Scran & Scallie
Altogether, the stunning quality of the three operas, and the sheer enjoyment provided by the three restaurants, made it a memorable week.