What exactly does Debrett's Guide for the Modern Gentleman say on standards of behaviour in restaurant dining rooms with windows looking into the kitchen? I have to confess I have previously been in the life's-too-short camp on this issue, and thus I have never before asked myself the question. Now that I have I am not certain that I can be bothered to look up the answer. Even if I owned a copy, which I don't. If the actions of the diner seated at the table next to mine at The Kitchin are anything to go by, however, the book possibly advises a gentleman taking dinner to leave his seat as often as possible in order to stand with face pressed up against the window, to wave at various sous-chefs and kitchen-hands, and to mouth "get chef.... get chef" at anyone unlucky enough to accidentally acknowledge their existence. For at least one modern gentleman, it seems, the dining experience isn't complete without a special wink and a nod from Tom.
It's a long time (more than six years, I see) since I last dined at The Kitchin, and much has changed. An expansion and remodelling a year or two ago has seen what was a rather diminutive dining venue more than double in size. Having taken over the Chinese restaurant next door, the dividing wall has been removed, opening out the dining room. The decor remains on the darker side though, and the lighting subtle, so there is still a feeling of intimacy here. Being seated right underneath the aforementioned window, with my back to the rest of the room, only accentuated this feeling.
Tom Kitchin's ethos has always been from nature to plate and that naturally beings a seasonal feel to the menu. Nevertheless dinner started with a rather summery feel. An aperitif of Tanqueray gin, pink grapefruit, elderflower, peach bitters and Fever Tree tonic was delicious (I have already added some of these items to my next shopping list) but it probably deserved some hot weather (and maybe a pool, and a villa, and live music from a Portuguese-African jazz combo) to do it justice. Having said that I chose the drink, so that's my responsibility. The amuse bouche of chilled carrot velouté with lime and ginger topped with diced apples was purely chef's choice though. Chilled soups are definitely for the summer in my book, although there was no denying the elegantly bright, fragrant and refreshing nature of the combination.
Choosing to dine à la carte (there are two à la carte menus, the second to allow more day-to-day seasonal variation I think), and also to drink by the glass, I kicked off with crispy veal sweetbreads and ox tongue from Inverurie served with sprouts and hazelnuts, and this was absolutely spot on. The texture of the sweetbreads was nothing less than perfection, soft and warm at their core, but with a gentle, golden and persistent crispiness to their edges. The kitchen here can even make sprouts edible, although their dull green colour suggested they had been cooked for a long time. Perhaps this is the answer to their usually unpalatable nature? Whatever the trick, I may have to reassess my previous assertions that sprouts (and their friends, flower sprouts) are what we will all (yes, you're all going there with me) be served in hell. The dish as an entirety worked really well, the crunch of the hazelnuts and a little drizzled jus adding texture and flavour. In addition, the hand-dived Orkney scallops baked in the shell with a white wine, vermouth and wild herb sauce, the shell encased in pastry for the cooking, were simply excellent. The scallops, four in number and the size of gold doubloons, were soft and almost melting in texture, and the sauce worked very well. The choice of herb was very reminiscent of tarragon and it gave the dish a very natural lift. With the 2014 Sancerre from Domaine Martin, which had a richer and confident style to stand up to the sweetbreads, but the acidity required by the scallops, both dishes worked very well.
The main courses progressed on very nicely from this very successful start. I opted for roasted loin of roe deer from the Borders with root vegetable mash, apple from Kate's garden and a juniper berry sauce, although what appeared was roe deer surrounded by jewels of vegetables and autumn fruits. It all worked very well, simple in concept but complex in terms of flavour combinations on the plate, and the roe deer was tender and well cooked. A selection of Highland lamb with roasted and raw artichoke and black olive was also delicious, except for a little parcel of shoulder meat which felt fairly dry, granular and overcooked, and it also carried an unexpected and unappreciated touch of curry spice. Aside from this minor niggle though, both dishes were supreme efforts, well executed, and they were nicely washed down with a 2010 St Emilion from good old Château de Fonbel.
At this point I normally turn to the cheese, but I my sweet tooth seems to be growing again (either that or my serum cheese levels are still riding high after Christmas) as instead I opted for a dessert, choosing the mille feuille of apples from chef's garden with caramel mousse and a calvados ice cream. This turned out to be a very wise choice, being spectacular in terms of concept, presentation and also flavour combinations. I shouldn't deconstruct dishes but in this case I can't resist; in a tower of dessert a firm caramel mousse provided the base for the apple, which came in two halves, sensitively poached, while at its summit was the calvados ice cream, soft and piped into place. Each layer was divided by a thin and crisp disc of pastry, and looking up at the tower from below were chinks of honeycomb and tiny pearls of apple flesh. This was a really impressive dish, and the result was a very rare one - a meal in which the dessert was, for me, the highlight.
Overall this was a great dinner, the service friendly and everybody seemed clued up on what was coming out of the kitchen. The sommelier was also attentive and did his best to be helpful with unsolicited suggestions, although this did mean I had to spurn his attempts to sell me a glass of oaked Chardonnay for the scallops (not an appealing combination, to my mind) and a Rioja for the lamb (which I am sure would have worked well). Those who know me will not be surprised to see that I drank from the Loire and Bordeaux, Pierre Martin being one of the new stars of Sancerre, and it is difficult to go wrong with any wine made by the Vauthier family in St Emilion. It was a great way to kick off my 2016 dining 'programme', and this is one of several Edinburgh restaurants that I am sure to return to in the future. Next time, though, I will make sure it is me tapping on the window and waving; I am sure the Guide for the Modern Gentleman must sanction such behaviour (otherwise who would do it?), and now I can't help feeling that Tom Kitchin owes me a wink and a nod.
Prices: Dinner for two, including two starters, two main courses, one dessert and two glasses of wine, was £182.90. There is a tasting menu offered as an alternative to the à la carte options, priced at £75, with an optional £55 for matched wines, or £125 for a more exclusive wine selection. The wine list includes some good value options, but also some eye-watering mark ups, including Pithon-Paillé Coteau des Treilles 2009 at £78, and the Didier Dagueneau Pur Sang 2012 at £185. (6/2/16)
The Kitchin is a relatively young affair making a big splash in an old city. Situated in Commercial Quay, Leith's waterfront, Tom Kitchin and his wife Michaela opened this temple to nature, freshness, seasonality and local produce in 2006; by 2007 Tom had picked up (alongside numerous other plaudits) a Michelin star, and two years on he is holding onto it, having seen two subsequent editions of the guide come and go. With that in mind I figured it was about time I paid this Edinburgh restaurant a visit.
I booked several months in advance, accepting a date later than I would really have liked, because the restaurant closes (no doubt for a well-earned break) in early January. Even with such foresight, however, there was only a 6:45pm table, to be vacated by 9pm, or as an alternative I could take the 9pm table. Hmmmm. Sequential sittings are a necessary curse with high-flying chefs, but they aren't commonly encountered in Edinburgh. I took the 6:45pm table, an early dinner, as did about three other pairs of diners on the evening in question, and then watched as numerous other parties were seated after me, closer to 8pm. Did I book too early, or too late, to take advantage of what would have been a much more convenient kick-off time?
Anyway, onto the food. As I alluded to above freshness and seasonality is a big feature of The Kitchin, which at this time of year can mean game, and indeed there were seasonal specials of teal, woodcock and hare alongside the à la carte menu, which already included venison. The evening kicked off with canapés, a small square of onion tart (or pizza, as it was introduced) with anchovy, which had a really good sweet-onion flavour, and little mouthfuls of chicken on the bone, with a rather homely, sweet and smoky glaze, and thereafter there was a fine amuse bouche of artichoke soup. There was bread too, a selection including sourdough, olive, rustic and others, although we munched on this dry, somewhat envious of the butter, oil and balsamic vinegar that graced other tables; this was perhaps the only significant omission of the evening, a slip-up in what was otherwise attentive, discrete and knowledgeable service.
As I awaited my choice for starter I watched Kitchin and his team at work, a feature of the restaurant being a large window between the kitchen and dining room. I was disappointed; there was no swearing, no shouting or screaming, nobody was fired and I would deduce from the air of calm serenity that lay over the scene that the language was free of expletives. No wonder Kitchin doesn't have celebrity-cult-chef-kitchen-reality-TV-show status. My dining companion suggested that this was in fact nothing more than a high quality widescreen television, playing a repeating loop of calm and controlled cooking activity; meanwhile, behind the kitchen door there might in fact be (a) bedlam, or (b) a row of ready meals waiting to go into a similar row of microwaves. Neither, I must stress, would be true of this establishment. Turning around, there was little else worthy of comment, although three weighty tomes placed atop a shelf behind me, reference texts from Larousse, Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, the latter having been Kitchin's mentor at Louis XV, in Monte Carlo, for a year or two perhaps give some indication of Kitchin's aspirations.
Back to the food. I started with snails and bone marrow, which came with a garlic and parsley risotto. There were numerous high points here; the snails, sourced in Devon, were fine, soft and just gently seared at the edges, having been sautéed. These were very pleasing, whereas the risotto was just superb; bright and lifted flavours, like spring water from verdant pastures, it would be difficulty to find a fresher mouthful. The only disappointment was the bone marrow, which was a touch watery, and lacked flavour in comparison with the other elements on the plate, and also in comparison to my previous encounters with this little delicacy. At least the portion size was hearty, which was more than Oloroso could manage. I also managed to grab a taste of Lonswood Farm duck, served as a dodine with foie gras, salsify and pear; the meat was meltingly divine. Following on, I opted for the woodcock special, which was overall a treat. From the bottom up, a square of minced woodcock offal occupied much of the plate, and it had an intense, gamey flavour which was impressive. Then in layers, the breasts and the legs, topped off by a bisected head, which would have any student of bird anatomy squealing with delight. On the side, an array of winter vegetables each of which deserved a moment of savouring, and a rich salmi sauce which matched the bird in terms of depth of flavour. Overall this was very appealing but also hugely flavoured and certainly one for game fans; the tender, soft meat was exquisite though. My only complaint was that by the time I was finishing up it was going cold; perhaps I just spent too long savouring everything, but maybe slightly hotter dishes coming out of the kitchen would help? From the menu, I also had a momentary bash at the Bramley Old Spot pork, which came with some super crackling and a finger (think gigantic fish finger) of shin meat, which was delicious.
I finished off with a spiced chocolate gateau, which was good rather than exciting, and a brilliant sea buckthorn sorbet; what a vibrant delight this was. Intense, fresh, acidic but sweet, this was a high point of the meal, and certainly one of the best desserts (or deserts, as the online Kitchin menu spells it - "I'll have a Gobi, please") I have experienced in a long while.
The wine list here is extensive, and there is an attentive sommelier. There are no half bottles, sadly, and when I enquired why I learnt that he does not perceive a need for half bottles when he has such a good range of wines by the glass. Hmmmm again....he may be right though. We opted for a glass or two of the Château Haut-Gleon, France Corbières Cuvée Claude Viallat 2003, which was good, warm rich and spicy, just as you might expect for a southern French blend of Syrah and Grenache from such a hot vintage; it was just fine with the woodcock, that is for certain. Overall, this was a great meal. Sure, I have pointed out a slip-up with service, and one or two points which detracted, but these are outweighed by the high quality of food emanating from Kitchin's kitchen. I look forward to returning, and hopefully not before too long.
Prices: This little evening came to about £140, a bill which provided two aperitifs, three courses each and two glasses of wine (£10.50 per 125 ml). There are a little more than a dozen wines listed by the glass, starting at £7 and topping out at £16. For those who choose Kitchin's tasting menu, which is £60, there is the option of a glass per course for £40. And for those not driving, a bottle may be more appropriate than the little pair of glasses we chose; there is a good selection, and plenty of well-priced options, matching what I paid for our two glasses, for the more frugal diner. (23/1/09)