It feels like only yesterday, or more realistically sometime last year, that I visited Norn, in Leith, home to chef-proprietor Scott Smith and his wife Laura. In fact it was (checks notes) nearly four years ago, back in November 2017. It was lucky that I called in when I did, as Norn was a star that burned brightly but also briefly. And it was from the ashes of Norn that Fhior was born.
Scott Smith is a protégée of Geoffrey Smeddle of The Peat Inn, and his arrival on the Edinburgh dining scene with Norn, in 2016, was an exciting moment. The new restaurant received a number of rave reviews (mine was more mixed, but there were certainly some brilliant high points to the meal) and it was quickly established as a must-visit venue for the capital city’s foodies.
Things then started to go awry. A redesign flopped, Scott’s relationship with his business partner soured, and ultimately Norn left the scene as dramatically as it had arrived. Scott announced the closure of the restaurant on April 30th, 2018, just a few months after my visit, and on the very day he won at the Edinburgh Restaurant Awards. Presumably his acceptance speech – if indeed he made one – went along the lines of “we’re the best, and now we’ve closed – goodnight”.
It was from these difficult beginnings that Scott and Laura Smith have created Fhior, with a new location, and presumably a new investor, but a very similar ethos. As with many local restaurateurs of note Scott focuses on distinctive and local produce (it isn’t often you see scurvy grass and sea aster on the menu), as well as sustainability and seasonality. The key difference here, I think, is that where many Edinburgh chefs package that up in a ‘modern British’ or even classically French theme, Scott’s cooking has a more independently Scottish, even slightly Nordic feel to it.
We settled into our table in the corner at Fhior having just survived a one-hour bus ride to be there (as our offspring have gradually flown the nest we now find ourselves short of willing chauffeurs). The space is well-lit, with simple wooden tables and chairs, and a minimalist decor, which suits the style of food here. There are just two menu options, a seven-course or a ten-course tasting menu; being a greedy piglet I was keen to try the latter, but I was encouraged to downsize my ambition and settle for the seven courses. It was probably a wise decision; after all, we did need to finish before the departure of the last bus home.
We kicked off with a pair of amuses bouches, a tartare of lamb with mint, and a roulade of seasonal herbs. The first was a tiny bowl of diced lamb which had good flavour, the second two little rolls with a curious texture that resembled plant stems – I think roulade led me to expect something softer – but with a bright herby flavour. Served in a bed of fresh herb leaves I found it impossible not to nibble, filling my mouth with the explosive flavours of mint, marjoram and dill. These little bites were quickly followed by some Orkney rye and barley bread, served with butter and salt flakes; I’m a fan of good bread (who isn’t?) and this was certainly very good bread.
Now cracking on with the menu proper, we started with mackerel and wilted greens (pictured above), a micro-dish of slices of cured mackerel, with blowtorched skin, served with a dalliance of wilted lettuce. The mackerel had good flavour – provided you like more oily fish – and to my palate the blowtorched skin added an interesting contrast in texture, even if it was more blackened than merely scorched. The wilted greens added visual appeal rather than any flavour of note, and overall this was a dish of modest appeal. So too was what followed, beetroot, nasturtium and cherry blossom, which came drizzled with an elderflower vinegar. Elegantly simple, this was a long wafer thin sliver of beetroot served with a freshening bite from the vinegar; the beetroot was as sweet as you might expect though, and it was an impossible match with the wine (more on which below).
After these two slightly wobbly dishes came three real treats, starting with chanterelle and cabbage, a very simple description for a platter of sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, wrapped up in a single cabbage leaf, and served with a mushroom ketchup. This was the first real highlight of the evening, the mushrooms packed with flavour, only beaten in this regard by the bright intensity of the mushroom ketchup. From this point onwards the kitchen seemed intent on sending out one delightful plate after another.
A dish of cod, chicken butter and sea aster (pictured above) featured a medallion of beautifully cooked cod, golden caramelised on top and flaking sweet and white underneath. It came on a bed of sea aster, delicately wilted, and served with a chicken butter, an emulsion rich and buttery enough to give your average cardiologist hives. It worked very well with the fish though, so the cardiologist will just have to suffer. Equally good was a small plate of duck, turnip and miso and scurvy grass (pictured below). The duck, glazed with miso, worked brilliantly with its herby and bright accompaniments, and it was very welcome after several fish and vegetable-focused courses.
Reducing our menu to just seven courses meant skipping the cheese course, although this may have been a mistake as the little cheesy tartlets I saw arriving at other tables looked delicious. But for us it was on to pudding, starting with bramble, buckwheat and lemon verbena, a rather gentle introduction to this section of the menu as it veered towards savoury rather than sweet, thanks mostly to the dry crunch of the buckwheat. I was more taken with the final dish of strawberry, sweet cicely and crème fraîche; here strawberries soaked in barrel-aged whisky malt vinegar, still retaining their sweetness, were presented with fine slivers of meringue, strawberry tuile and crème fraîche ice cream. Each flavour shone through with individual energy, and it was a wonderful way to finish the meal.
The wine list had enough interesting bottles to entice me, although it is far from a magnum opus, with about 40 options presented on two sides of A4. Matching wines are of course an option with the set menu, but I opted for the 2014 Bretonnière from Domaine de la Taille aux Loups. Vouvray in everything but name, this cuvée is sourced from the Clos de la Bretonnière, which lies in Noizay, upstream of Vernou-sur-Brenne and Vouvray itself. It is Vin de France as it is denied the appellation (and therefore also denied the use of the word clos on the label) simply because the fruit is vinified on the opposite bank of the Loire, in Jacky Blot’s cellars, in the Montlouis-sur-Loire appellation. It had the benefit of a little bottle age, and it comes from one of the most delightfully acid-framed vintages in recent years.
The Vouvray (I hope you don’t mind if I refer to it as such) was a delicious concoction of dry structure, honeyed texture and the acid-bright substance that comes with being a 2014, this latter element taking on a somewhat tart and sour presence. It worked well with almost every dish, from obvious matches such as the cod and mackerel, to the less obvious lamb tartare and duck, both of which were presented in a manner that worked well with this substantial white. Where it fell down was with the sweetness of the beetroot, which served only to accentuate the acidity. Having said that, I am not sure any other dry wine would have worked here. The suggested match from the wine menu is an Austrian Riesling, the 2017 Vom Gelben Loss from Josef Ehmoser, but I am not convinced this would have fared any better.
My evening at Fhior was a good one. This is a well-located restaurant, with an interesting and distinctive menu, with some excellent dishes. While one or two felt a little wobbly, there were no real disappointments, and these moments were more than compensated for by the highlights, of which there were a number. The service was good, prompt and nervously attentive at the start, more laid back later on; with this more relaxed feel came a slow down in the arrival of the dishes though, perhaps a reflection of this being a very busy Friday-night service. The prices are perhaps what you would expect at this level of cooking, but there are some bargains waiting to be plucked from the wine list. I shall make a return journey to explore the list in more depth. I am sure it will be worth another hour or two on the bus.
Prices: At the time of my visit seven courses were £65, ten course £90, with matching wines £60 and £85 respectively. The 2014 Bretonnière was £55, with other by the bottle options starting at £34, and there are a handful of by-the-glass options as well. Our bill, providing dinner for two, came to £185. (24/9/21)