The Gardener's Cottage is perfectly designed for the Instagram age. Scan its Twitter feed or website and you’ll see fetching snaps of the latest seasonal produce the chefs have sourced and sweetly arranged. Collections of fresh and bottled stock sit alongside the latest menu chalked up on a slightly bashed-up blackboard.
The setting is wonderful. Just over three years ago, chefs Edward Murray (who trained as an architect) and Dale Mailley, both of whom had experience in top Edinburgh kitchens, overhauled the 19th-century William Playfair-designed, B-listed building, which had been home to the gardener who worked for the posh folk on nearly Royal Terrace.
A little house that had lain derelict for years now has a thriving vegetable and herb garden out front – squared off from the main road by a hedge – and retains a rustic aesthetic that almost makes you forget you’re a few minutes’ walk from a multiplex.
The restaurant is split into two rooms, each of which has communal tables seating ten diners. The decor is simple and fairly true to the original style, with dark floorboards and bare wooden tables. The largest room, which has two long tables, is also home to the record player, and shares space with the small, well organised kitchen, which is split into two areas.
"I would have licked the bowl if I hadn't been pretending to be well brought up."
You’ve really got to be prepared to bump elbows with your fellow diners and it seems as if most of the people who come here are happy to do that, but I imagine it could feel a bit cramped if you have the dimensions of, say, a rugby player. Likewise, this might not be the place for you if you have confidential matters to discuss, or aren’t keen on involuntary eavesdropping.
There’s an à la carte menu at lunchtime, but we visited in the evening, when a seven-course tasting menu is on offer for a rather reasonable £40.
For the first course, my friend Fiona was presented with pan-fried mackerel on smoked buttermilk curd with bitter cress and Douglas fir dressing, sprinkled with burnt leek powder. She loved the mackerel, which was cooked simply, its skin enticingly crispy, and the unusual smokiness of the curd, which looked like cottage cheese, but found the combination of fish and cheese a little strange.
Having been warned in advance that I’m a vegetarian, the kitchen swapped the mackerel for a hazelnut and mushroom dumpling, which was chewy, nutty fun. Both dishes looked superb.
Next up for both of us was salt-crusted beetroot with swede, swede purée, Romanesco purée, crumbled Jerusalem artichoke and sprinklings of yarrow. It was ever so pretty, but very much a dish for fans of autumnal root vegetables.
Fiona let out a discreet apologetic giggle when she tasted her next course, a mutton broth with kale and snowball turnip. It was lifted by the addition of hazelnut and mushroom dumplings, but was quite watery with no depth of flavour – and no actual lamb.
My third course was an absolute knock-out though – potato and walnut soup with a kale and Douglas fir dressing. It was smooth, nutty and nourishing and I would have licked the bowl if I hadn’t been pretending to be well brought up. Home-made sourdough bread was a great accompaniment.
For the fourth and main course, Fiona had vivid red pan-fried mallard with offal pie, cabbage and bacon, bread sauce and elderberry ketchup.
It was rich and gamey, the offal pie “not too offally” – meaty, tasty and light with excellent crispy pastry. She felt the elderberry was a bit overpowering, but I was grateful for its tangy sweetness in my main, a snowball turnip stuffed with Irish cheese and chives, served on a bed of kale with pickled chanterelle mushrooms and roast potatoes.
One of the highlights was the palate cleanser – an outstandingly fresh apple and beetroot sorbet, over which our waitress poured nettle, camomile and woodruff (from a cafetiere, which didn’t seem a charming enough receptacle, somehow). It came with a tiny pieces of shortbread topped with apple purée and was just marvellous.
The penultimate course was Stawley goat’s cheese from Somerset – a rather dense variety – with some wonderful burnt leek crackers, seaweed crackers and hyssop jelly. Thanks to the modestly proportioned dishes, we had enough room for dessert, a smoked pumpkin and chocolate slice with meringue. The smoked flavour felt a little odd for a pudding, but took us back to fond memories of the smoked buttermilk curd at the beginning of this culinary journey.
Tasting menu £40 for seven courses
ALSO ON THE MENU
Lunch is served from noon until 2.30pm, and there’s an early sitting for dinner, starting at 5pm and closing at 10pm. The cottage is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and can be hired for events. Keep an eye on their Twitter feed for what’s coming up on the menu at @gardenersctg, and be sure to let them know in advance if you have any dietary issues.