Fast forward to July 2012, and chefs Dale Mailley and Edward Murray (with experience between them at city centre venues The Outsider, Blue, The Atrium, Cafe St Honoré and The Kitchin) have rescued the William Playfair-designed, B-listed building from near dereliction, transforming it into a beautifully pared-back space offering a unique communal dining experience that, on paper, might seem far from likely to prove popular with the restrained diners of Edinburgh.
I wonder if, almost three years on, it really is as entrancing as it looks from the outside. My friend Helen’s birthday provides the ideal opportunity to
find out, so we recruit two other food-loving pals. When we enter we find there are two dining rooms, neither particularly large, one with a single table seating ten, and the other, where we four are seated, with two long communal tables that each seat ten. It’s a lovely space, with more than a hint of simple Scandinavian style, although it doesn’t strike any of us as the ideal venue for a quiet, intimate meal. This is far more geared up for a lively evening out.
Dinner comprises a six-course set menu, although for some reason the evening we are there we enjoy seven courses for the same £35 fixed price. (There is also the option to have drinks chosen to complement your meal, which costs another £35 on top.) We opt for an easy-drinking Sicilian white, Palazzo del Mare Catarratto, at £19.90. A couple of small glasses of rioja-like red, Manium Mencia Crianza Bierzo (£7.50 each), are required by the non-drivers to fully appreciate their meat courses.
The opener is beautifully cooked pan-fried turbot with purple sprouting broccoli, sea spaghetti – a mild-tasting seaweed, which looks just like pasta – and groats, which are essentially oats with nothing done to them. It’s a hit with all of us. Taste buds on tenterhooks, we’re ready and waiting for course number two. And, unfortunately, that is what we do for quite a while, wait.
But when it does arrive, our salt-baked hake, mixed with potato in a delicate, marshmallow-like mash, with clams, winkles and capers, is divine. The drizzle of sauce has us guessing sherry but turns out to be cider.
"the beauty of the tasting menu IS it coaxes you to try something new"
The waiter had asked if we wanted to know what we would eat that evening and having declined there is a real element of surprise to each course.
Course three features a wonderful pairing of cured roe deer, with root vegetables (celeriac, beetroot and rainbow carrot), plus ricotta, greens from the garden, gherkins and bulgur wheat. Both the look and texture of this dish have a fresh, woodland feel. The meat is lean and tender and the gherkins add a delicious tang.
Dishes are motoring along happily now. Mutton (shoulder and leg) is teamed with walnut pesto, a perfectly al dente cauliflower, kale and a wild garlic yoghurt. It looks gorgeous on the plate and the yoghurt is seriously garlicky – I’m flying to London early the next morning and reckon I might get a whole row to myself after this.
Normally, when out for dinner together, we all tend to order something different, but the interesting thing here is being able to compare like for like. The roe deer gets Tracey’s top vote – “a great mix of flavours”, while Alison declares the mutton, “total heaven on a plate”. Helen also favours the mutton whereas this is my least favourite dish.
On to a beetroot sorbet with homemade rye shortbread with a cloud-like yoghurt cream alongside; again beautifully presented with a very thin apple crisp slicing through the middle. It’s quite a concept for a pudding, starting off sweet before the beetroot kicks in. Thumbs up all round. And this, surely, is the beauty of the tasting menu; it coaxes you into trying something new and opens you up to fresh experiences.
We next dive headlong into a Hampshire Camembert served with homemade crackers, pickled walnuts and apple, and end with the most delicious hazelnut cake with poached rhubarb and sherry ice-cream set off with crunchy oat crisp.
Despite an evening of eating, no-one is too full. There is nothing too rich or heavy throughout – inventively wholesome springs to mind, while the focus on seasonal and fresh is apparent, Quite when we forgot we were sharing a table with six other folk, I’m not too sure, but we all agreed the food and atmosphere, plus the £35 a head food bill, all combine to make this a pretty magical experience.
Lunch starters £6
Lunch mains £16-£17
Puddings or cheese £6
Weekend brunch £9-£11
Dinner, six-course set menu £35
ALSO ON THE MENU:
Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am, and features the likes of Arbroath smokie and eggs (£9), meatloaf brioche sandwich (£8) or bacon, black pudding and greens (£11). Lunch is served at weekends from noon with starters at £6, including ricotta, beetroot and apple salad, and mains such as hake, mussels, clams and pak choi (£17).