How long can one live in Edinburgh before visiting The Witchery, or the Witchery by the Castle as it is properly known? Well, in my case, perhaps nearly two years, but I can’t deny that for some this is a must-visit location. For years it has been regarded by many as one of the city’s top restaurants it seems, and that makes for a successful business. The original restaurant was augmented by the Secret Garden, restaurant number two, more than a few years ago. And there are a number of suites in the Old Rectory for those who don’t wish to have too far to travel to bed after a gustatory evening.
I recently dined at The Witchery in a reasonably sized party, occupying several tables in the main restaurant, giving me an opportunity to sample across a range of dishes. Naturally, however, we kicked off with the wine list which is certainly comprehensive and as with many such lists, you can find some less painfully marked-up bottles provided you know where to look. First and foremost, a 2004 Vouvray from Huet’s Le Haut Lieu Sec vineyard was selected, which materialised at the table as a Le Mont Sec of the same vintage, a fact which seemed of no interest to the admittedly very attentive sommelier, who provided good if rather slow service. This was a popular choice at the table, coping well with a wide range of choices for the first course. In my case this was crab presented in a small coleslaw-like preparation, with some very fussy dressing up around the edges. I thought it would probably taste of crab, a reasonable expectation I would think, but it didn’t; it was almost devoid of such flavour, and contained a solitary chunk of crab meat. I am not sure what that particular piece of meat did to receive such punishment, but let us not dwell too long on my misfortune, or that of the crab. A neighbour had oysters, which I believe were good, the steak tartare, which I tasted, was very well done (if you see what I mean), and the fish soup was good, nothing more, so there seemed to be quite a wide variation in quality delivered.
I followed up with a jambonette of guinea fowl, using a pistachio stuffing, another dish that left me wanting for more flavour. The fowl and the stuffing were fairly indistinguishable, both in appearance and on the palate, and although it gave more pleasure than my criminal crab it really left me wanting for more. I had some good chunky chips from the selection of side dishes, but was left bemused by the broccoli in anchovy butter. Perhaps this is someone’s idea of heaven; I simply found it weird. Again, across the table, there seemed to be a wide range of opinions on what was served, with some pleased, others disappointed. Wine number two was also rather awkward, a 2004 Crozes-Hermitage from Alain Graillot. “I must decant the wine because of sediment“, intoned the sommelier at the beginning of the evening, which seemed rather unlikely to me, although I thought the aeration would do the wine no harm at all. Unfortunately, no amount of oxygen was sufficient to rescue this rather foursquare effort from, well, foursquaredness. I think it merely needs time in the cellar in order for it to blossom, but on the night that was a luxury we didn’t really have.
To finish, an assiette of desserts. With such a selection I don’t need to look around the table; I could sample just about every dessert offered, and I am afraid my memory fails me as to the not quite innumerable choices. But the dark chocolate torte was memorable and really very, very good. Everything else, however, was fairly average. The lavender ice cream was not sufficiently intense in flavour, and the texture was all wrong, icy rather than creamy. The pineapple concoction served in a shot glass was truly dull, whereas the others were simply unremarkable (and, evidently, unmemorable). It was a fitting end to the meal. The Witchery offers a wonderful atmosphere, engendered largely by the ancient oak panelling and tapestries, attentive staff, an interested sommelier and a good wine list. These are the attractions here; the food, however, lacks sufficient zip for me.
Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Mont Sec 2004: Listed as of the Haut Lieu vineyard. This was a popular choice at the table, coping well with a wide range of choices for the first course. Very fresh and minerally on the nose, with a similar character on the palate, flavoursome and lithe, with a good broad presence on the palate. 17/20 (March 2007)
Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2004: Decanted because of sediment, apparently. It has substance, texture, body, a bit of grip, and with a year or two in the cellar it may well make for a good drink. But today, this surly youth was reticently silent. No aromatics, no life, no vigour. A second bottle was the same; no doubt such an experience would have some critics rushing to downgrade their opinion of the 2004 vintage in the Rhône, but this is just closed for business at the moment. A shame. 15+?/20 (March 2007)
Price: We dined as a group, but a typical three course dinner would come in at less than £50, not including drinks. The wine list is extensive and includes some attractively priced bottles. (10/3/07)