With Tom Kitchin well established at his waterside restaurant, the eponymous Kitchin, the arrival of Paul Kitching in Edinburgh had obvious potential for confusion. Fortunately for the city’s taxi drivers Kitching, who achieved fame and a Michelin star at Juniper in Greater Manchester, christened his new venture 21212, a name quite distinct from that chosen by his near-namesake.
The logic behind this rather unusual title is actually quite straightforward. Although Kitching wowed his Mancunian clientele with culinary creations that might best be described as on the wacky side of weird – such as minty deserts dressed up as toothpaste and mouthwash, or Branston pickle ice cream – this move to Edinburgh was to be a return to a more classical style for Kitching. Five courses, with two or just one choice per course – hence 21212 – of fresh and more classically-styled dishes than were found at Juniper. No more unions of Weetabix and lobster, or curried fudge. In Kitching’s own words, “It’s time for me to grow up, cook in a different way.”
So Kitching and partner Kate O’Brien have opened up on Edinburgh’s Royal Terrace, a venture incorporating dining, including two facilities for private events, together with rooms above, no doubt very handy for guests too tired to make their way home after an evening of wining and dining. This is a great location, a combination of brilliant views across the treetops of Edinburgh and fine Georgian architecture, which Kitching and O’Brien have decorated extravagantly; the warm and comforting drawing room upstairs, where I took a pre-dinner glass of non-vintage Henriot Brut Souverain, is dominated by a giant mural showing a hugely magnified detail from Caravaggio’s The Seven Works of Mercy. It is an impressive sight. 21212 may be a logical name, but it is perhaps not such a good choice after all; it suggests that the restaurant experience is entirely encapsulated by the menu, but there is so much more to this establishment, with its almost magical setting, than what arrives at the table.
Downstairs it was time to eat, and ensconced in a curious little corner table we had a good view of the dining room, which slowly filled up during the course of the evening, and a fair view into the kitchen which sits behind a glass partition at the far end of the room. The sommelier arrived, looking curiously familiar – a face I recognise from previous dinners at her old haunt, Number One. The list bears the mark to some extent of Zubair Mohammed of Raeburn Fine Wines, and she confirmed that suspicion. I chose a bottle of Vouvray Le Mont Sec 2005 from Huet of course, and settled back to watch at least half a dozen chefs – not including a couple of observers – gathered around Kitching and his workstation, such that they almost had to jostle for position. They fussed over the preparation of our first dish, hands firing out from the amorphous mass of cooks to add, adjust and perfect. And when the dishes eventually arrived at the table, the first impressions were good. Lightness, simplicity and clarity of flavour were the orders of the day here; my guinea fowl came with a little frothed gordal olive cream, a note of extravagance over pieces of ratatouille vegetables, each gently cooked, precise, sitting in isolation like individual jewels, together with a scattering of hazelnuts. There was nothing complex here, just clean flavours and freshness. The alternative dish of baked mackerel with caper berries, ginger sauce, plum and sesame worked better than it sounds.
Next up was soup, and this was really the point where I realised I was in the presence of a truly great talent. On the evening in question we were treated – and I’m not using the term lightly – to a melange of summer carrot and parsnip, Scottish girolles, bacon and almonds. The colour was divine, the golden glow of a freshly released egg yolk, and the textural quality left me in raptures. This was a dish of intense flavours with pleasure and umami in abundance; if the guinea fowl was second gear then we were now in fifth, with overdrive on. It was without doubt the culinary highpoint of the evening, one that went beyond the single Michelin star that Kitching is so obviously shooting for.
Thereafter the options were trout or beef, and opting for the former I received a baked fillet which, served with a puree of aubergine and dill and a sweetcorn relish, was another dish of high quality. There were some elements that to me seemed unnecessary, serving only to hang on the trout’s coat tails, in particular a layer of cream cheese which seemed just too heavy when contrasted against the delicacy of the fish, but on the whole this was very good. I also had an opportunity to try the alternative option, tender fillet of beef with exotic vegetables, Earl Grey and the curiously termed ‘icky sticky’, which turned out to be a very sweet, caramelised, cakey base hidden beneath the beef. This was a very well conceived dish, very rich, the beef cooked long and cool, so it was soft, its texture and bite much more uniform and gentle than you would usually expect, and yet it was still pink throughout. A much richer and heavier dish than the rest of the menu, this would have worked beautifully with a Rhône Valley red; it would also have been much better received without the large, black hair that was hiding underneath it all.
The response to this kitchen-gaff was swift, although perhaps a little too jokey and light-hearted considering the size of the bill one racks up at a restaurant like this. In my opinion and experience apologies should be explicit and clearly stated, giving an indication of the problem at hand being of some importance to those apologising. Instead we were informed of O’Brien’s relief that “at least you can’t blame me, because I didn’t serve you“. I think this was an attempt to deal with it in a light-hearted manner, and perhaps to hide embarrassment, but it was the wrong tack for me. In fact I was incredulous. A replacement dish quickly appeared, whilst I was allowed to continue eating mine. Some might argue that both dishes should have been replaced (the issue was dealt with so quickly I don’t think this was necessary) and some will no doubt be concerned that the replacement was the same dish re-hashed (I don’t think it was), whilst others will naturally ask if any concession was offered. I certainly wasn’t informed of any, although reviewing the bill when writing this I see I didn’t pay for our two espressos. Was this because of our hairy beef, I wonder? Minus one for kitchen hygiene, but minus two for poor communication.
Whilst on the issue of disappointments, I can’t pretend that every element of this dinner reached the culinary heights of that fabulous summer carrot and parsnip soup. Perhaps the only genuine disappointment of the evening was the bread, a heavy mix including fruit and curry spices which had the textural quality of cake rather than bread, and was more redolent of sweet, sweet, oh-so-sweet hot cross buns with more than a generous dusting of Balti spices. Course number four, a platter of cheese including some really good although quite pungent Roquefort and a nutty Comte, was very good, although it was somewhat spoiled by more of this curried fruit-bread-cake-curry melange, this time flattened and baked, presented as crisp-bread. The second also very questionable item was a pourer of coconut and porridge milk, served as a little pre-dessert amuse bouche. The ceramic cow in which it was served certainly appealed on fun-factor, but the thickened, viscous and flavoured milk within did not. I thought Kitching said it was time to grow up and cook in a different way? Old habits are hard to break I suppose.
The evening was rounded off by the aforementioned espresso, but not before pudding of course! Lemon curd pudding, essentially a lemon custard with a soft, pleasing consistency, with rice beneath and a brûlée topping, was just fine. A ‘trifle’ of white chocolate, brazils, blackberries, banana and pineapple was less impressive, a melange of flavours swirled in a murky ‘milk anglaise‘. Nevertheless, it was – if we forget the sticky milk and sticky bread for a moment – the only less than excellent dish of the evening. Paul Kitching clearly has a great talent, and I would urge the food-interested inhabitants of Edinburgh with the necessary financial clout to visit this establishment. Errant hairs aside, having eaten in three out of four of Edinburgh’s Michelin starred restaurants this year the quality here is without doubt on that level, and indeed at moments it is clearly superior. Tellingly, when I first wrote that last sentence, I wrote ‘four out of five’; in my mind, Kitching already has his star.
Henriot Brut Souverain NV: A brief note for this wine. It has a very elegant hue in the glass, and this characteristic is carried through on the nose and palate. Bright, nicely poised, gently nutty, this is fresh but with an admirably judged layer of flavour. Stylish, composed and rather winey, with a fine mousse. This is very good indeed. 16.5/20 (August 2009)
Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Mont Sec 2005: The nose starts off in a very inorganic way with a number of novel aromas not noted with previous tastings of this wine. There is a cordite, gun-powder element, a little sulphurous in character; I think at least part of this, however, is an intense minerality perhaps exacerbated by being served a touch too warm by the sommelier. Once chilled a little more the wine shows a much more typical profile. Defined, quite pure in fact, clean but full and fairly weighty, this fabulous wine has great potential. I have half a dozen in the cellar, bottles which I should try to leave well alone for now! 18+/20 (August 2009)
Prices: Total for this dinner was just short of £190, covering five courses each (£60 per head), two glasses of Champagne (£10.50 each) and the 2005 Huet (£40). There are certainly less pricy wines on the list. Rooms start at £250 per night. (26/11/09)