50-54 Henderson St, Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 6DE
GPS: 55.973437, -3.173150
Update: Since this review was published the team split; chef-owner Scott Smith and wife Laura left to establish Fhior, while head chef Darren Murray stayed on the Norn site to open Borough.
I suppose I always knew the day would come. I have fallen in love with a carrot.
Unfortunately this love story is not one with a happy ending, at least not for the carrot. It is instead a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, for while I remain firmly attached to this mortal coil, the carrot is no more. This brave root vegetable paid the ultimate price, dispatched at the altar of fine dining. It was dressed in its sacrificial garb of curdy cheese and lovage, and consumed. I realised, as my evening at Norn drew to a close, that it had been the most magnificent carrot I have ever eaten. Could any other restaurant have delivered such a delicious, Daucus-y denouement? I doubt it.
Norn, which for the curious of mind is named for an ancient dialect of the Norse language once spoken in Orkney and Shetland, is to be found in Leith on the premises once inhabited by Tony Borthwick’s The Plumed Horse. Inside the kitchen has been opened up a little, although other than the addition of a small counter-and-stool seating area where you can observe chef-owner Scott Smith (previously of The Peat Inn) and his team feverishly preparing the world’s best carrot dish, and a top-to-tail paint job, little else has changed.
Dinner at Norn is an homage to local produce and traceability, and every dish is impeccable in this regard; each and every course was introduced tableside with details on provenance down to the name of the farmer who tended the crop, or the East Lothian beach from where the herbs were gathered, thankfully in a manner that largely avoided pretentiousness. In terms of quality, however, dinner here is a bit of a roller coaster ride. The presentation of the carrot, lovage and cheese lacked imagination (lie whole carrot on plate, cover with lovage and cheese), especially compared to a very similar dish enjoyed recently at Aizle, where carrot sections created a miniature city scene of skyscrapers which drew me in, Godzilla-like, ready to destroy all before me. Nevertheless in terms of flavour it was a true delight, the carrot lightly dried and sweetened by a gentle roast, and then lifted by the soft, cool, creamy cheese. It was memorable, as was grouse, damson and porridge, the young grouse breast perfectly pink, tender and filled with flavour, offset by the combined sweetness and tartness of the damson and the savoury backdrop of porridge oats. More dishes like these would have me coming back to Norn time and time again.
Other dishes I found less moving, or downright annoying. Responding to a question from our waitress about allergies or dislikes as we sat down, I offered the information that my dining companion couldn’t eat smoked salmon. “No worries”, we were reassured, “there’s nothing like that on the menu”. The opening salvo from the kitchen after that introduction was smoked trout, beetroot and raspberry (pictured above), which left me feeling like we had lost on a technicality, as last time I checked smoked trout was at least vaguely similar to smoked salmon. While the smoked trout was delicious (and I had a double helping, so I should know), and it worked well with the slivers of beetroot, the raspberry did nothing for this dish. In fact it was a distraction which seemed to clash with everything else on the plate. Its follow-up, a combination of mussel, tomato and bone marrow was interesting but lacked intensity of flavour, the watery marrow consommé too light in character for my tastes. And while beef, sea herbs and gooseberry was fine in concept, a quick and sensitive sear of the skirt steak demonstrated why this particular cut benefits from tenderising through marinating. And while I admire the use of sea herbs gathered from East Lothian beaches, if they too are tough with partly lignified stems, it only adds to the disappointment.
I finished up with two sweeter courses, meadowsweet, spelt and bramble followed by strawberry, water mint and sour cream, both of which were charming and quickly consumed, the former especially so, a pleasant note on which to end the evening.
I admire the commitment demonstrated by Scott Smith and his team at Norn in sourcing local products, an ethos which goes hand-in-hand with the admirable seasonality of the menu, and the evident importance placed upon full traceability. Full marks too for an interesting wine list, the over-arching theme being small domaines, with perhaps a natural leaning. I drank the 2014 Les Rouliers from Richard Leroy, a vinous memory I shall have to treasure as I seemed to miss out on adding the 2014 vintage to my cellar. Where everything falls down is the final execution, some dishes working quite brilliantly, while some seemed less inspired. I couldn’t help feeling some ingredients had been chosen to reflect the restaurant’s ethos and locality rather than thinking of how they might work on the plate, especially when it came to one or two of the more unusual flavour combinations. Trout with raspberry? All the same, this is a brave and at times exciting menu from Norn, and I look forward to seeing how things progress here.
Now, I’m off to buy some carrots.
Prices: A seven-course menu was £65 per head, although a shorter four-course option would have been £40 per head. Matching drinks, should you wish, are £60 or £35 per head on top of that. I opted for the 2014 Les Rouliers from Richard Leroy which was £70, but there are plenty of other options both north and south of this figure. With two aperitifs as well, dinner for two came to £212.40. (11/11/17)