This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Edinburgh seems to incorporate the old and the new more easily than most cities. International brands may occupy Princes Street but the skyline with the magnificent Castle in the background is still breathtaking while the plethora of new bars, cafés and shops around St Andrew Square seem somehow to have warmed up the imposing but once rather forbidding George Street.
During the ten minute taxi ride from the centre of the city to Leith, once its main port but now home not just to a burgeoning residential population but numerous cafes and restaurants of its own, an old friend, whose gently expanding girth is testimony to his love of good food and wine, explained the inferiority complex he believes the city's restaurateurs suffer from. Their best chefs and restaurateurs, he explained, frequently go down to London to eat at the top restaurants but invariably come back feeling that however well they are cooking it will never be good enough to match what they have enjoyed 'in the big smoke.' But on the basis of the two meals I ate in Leith, one in a long established restaurant the other less than nine months old, I believe this inferiority complex should be jettisoned once and for all.
As soon as our taxi drew up outside The Vintners Rooms I felt a sense of coming back to an old friend's house even though I had not eaten there for a decade. The cobbled street; the atmospheric courtyard; the ancient hoist on the next building that stands above some medieval cellars all make for a more than enticing entrance to a restaurant whose interior is equally distinctive. To the left is the 18th century Sale Room, still only lit by candles, while the main room on the right reveals not only a bar brimming with bottles and decanters but also a fire in the ancient fireplace. And in contrast to virtually anywhere now in far more expensive London, tables are set out so that there is enough space for your conversation not to be overheard all in a refreshingly smoke-free environment.
The Vintners Rooms is now home to French chef Patrice Ginestière and Italian maitre d' Silvio Praino, who returned to the restaurant business after running his own Italian restaurant because he had come to enjoy Ginestière's food so much that he knew he would never have to worry about the kitchen's performance.
This partnership has obviously flourished because from a professional perspective it is an absolute joy to watch Praino in action. A small, dapper man he patrols his dining room like a benevolent sergeant major but one trained in an era when learning the most basic skills correctly was essential. The manner in which he silently clears a table of its crockery and cutlery and then relays it with a new tablecloth without an inch of the underfelt being seen by a customer are signs that you are in the hands of an expert. So too is his dexterity with an extremely good wine list and the numerous decanters this can involve.
While these skills, particularly Praino's rapport with his customers, are timeless the weakness in Ginestière's cooking reveals how chefs must evolve. Grilled red mullet with artichokes barigoules, beef carpaccio with shavings of black truffle, braised ox cheeks, Buccleuch beef were all good but individually and collectively too heavy with not enough thought given to the vegetable accompaniment. There was no vegetarian first or main course and I could not help but notice that in the reservations book for the following day there was a note that one party contained a vegetarian who would obviously require special dishes. This approach is out-dated and needs to change even though I hope little else will change at the obviously timeless Vintners Rooms.
Only a short distance away and right down by the waterfront, Tom and Michaela Kitchin set up The Kitchin nine months ago and appear to be garnering the custom their hard work, courage and sensibility deserve.
The Kitchin's interior is the antithesis of The Vintners Room. There is not a tablecloth to be seen in this ultra-modern interior but again customers can enjoy a comfortable distance between the tables. Kitchin's culinary leitmotif, From Nature to Plate, is proudly proclaimed on the window that faces on to Commercial Street and is also reproduced on the menu for extra emphasis while a large window allows any interested diner to watch at least two or three of his young chefs, in their clean white jackets and blue hats, in action.
Kitchin's menu layout clearly reflects this approach. All the seemingly carefully sourced main ingredients appear in bold with the list of the secondary ingredients underneath so the eye and the rumbling stomach are immediately and most obviously drawn to what you may most want to eat. Kitchin's training, with Pierre Koffman at La Tante Claire in London and Alain Ducasse in Monaco, then seems to inspire his brigade to create dishes that are definitely more than the sum of their parts. On his website Kitchin hopes that he has created a chef's restaurant (which may have accounted for the three single, male diners when we were there) but the friendliness of the mainly French waiting staff precludes any sense that this place is in any way exclusive.
Foie gras with haggis, neeps (turnips) and potatoes did sound distinctive but, so close to the water, I chose instead hand dived Orkney scallops with purple sprouting broccoli and a pumpkin beurre blanc that were probably the largest scallops I have ever seen and looked magnificent laid out on a white scallop dish. The fillet of turbot that followed had been cooked with the level of intensity that Kitchin's two distinguished bosses would have approved of and was accompanied by crisp leeks and painstakingly prepared salsify. From that day's lunch menu (£15.50 for 2 courses, £19.50 for three) came an intriguing salad of Highland Burgundy potatoes and Morteau sausage, three, generous fillets of John Dory and a first class pear Tarte Tatin with black peppercorn ice cream.
With time and a positive cash flow, the Kitchins will, I am sure, improve their wine list and, I hope, also address the issue of vegetarians. Here at least they offer a mixed salad as a first course but nothing else although the small cup of carrot and star anise soup that came as an amuse-bouche was delicious. The bottom of the menu states that vegetarian dishes are available upon request but this is divisive. And after all, vegetables are as much a part of Scottish Nature as the fish, meat and game Tom Kitchin and his brigade handle with such obvious aplomb
The Vintners Rooms, The Vaults, 87 Giles Street, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6BZ, 0131-554 6767. www.thevintnersrooms.com
The Kitchin, 78 Commercial Quay, Leith. Edinburgh EH6 6LX, 0131- 555-1755, www.thekitchin.com
Original Khushi's, 9 Victoria Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2HE, 0130-220 0057 for Indian/Pakistani food,
Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh EH7 4AA, 0131-556 6066,
The Atrium, 10 Cambridge Street, Edinburgh, 0131-228 8882,
And anything sweet from Plaisir du Chocolat, 251/3 Canongate, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH8 8BQ, www.plaisirduchocolat.com