This article was also published in the Financial Times.
It was the sheer quality of the ingredients in our first courses – a rabbit ballotine, two diver scallops and a smoking 'cannelloni' of crab – at Mark Greenaway's restaurant overlooking the Queen Victoria Gardens in Edinburgh that first impressed me.
But as our meal progressed, three other estimable qualities emerged, one of which one was evident wherever I ate across this historic city.
The first was Greenaway's well-considered and dramatic style of presentation. The crab (right), which regrettably I had allowed my guest to order instead of me, looked most enticing in a clear glass bowl. One of the scallops arrived cooked, the other raw but began to be transformed under our gaze as the waitress added a jug of hot Japanese dashi or stock. And my ballotine tasted even better once I had poured the small jug of hazelnut milk alongside it.
This visual stimulation was then augmented by the unlikely arrival in the middle of our table of a glass coffee percolator, Cona No 3, and designed, I learnt subsequently, by a Scot called Napier.
Encouraged by our Estonian waitress, we had ordered one of Greenaway's signature dishes, his version of Scotch broth, as an intermediary course. In the bottom of the percolator was a concentrated lamb consommé while in the top half was an amalgam of star anise, tarragon, rosemary and lamb jelly. A small candle was put underneath and while the liquid then climbed into the upper half we inhaled some quite delicious vapours. The candle extinguished, the broth fell. Soup bowls containing barley, carrot and a sliver of lamb were then placed in front of us and the broth was poured over. It was the finest Scotch broth I have tasted.
The second feature to emerge, a tribute to Greenaway's 19 years in the kitchen, five of which have been spent in Sydney, Australia, were the combinations in each dishes. Or, as my sister described, it 'the withs', once again reinforcing my belief that when men read menus they are principally attracted by the main ingredient or the protein, while women tend to look first and foremost at the accompaniment, the most alluring vegetable accompaniment or intricate sauce.
This sensitivity permeated everything else we ate: the purple sprouting broccoli with the rack, belly and shank of Border lamb; the carrot puree and grilled octopus with the monkfish; and the roast cauliflower with the slow-cooked pork belly. Finally, there was an excellent rendering of rhubarb: a gingerbread and rhubarb fondant served alongside two more variations of rhubarb, poached and as a jelly.
Greenaway cannot be accredited with all the responsibility for these accomplishments. Nicola Jack, his fiancée and business partner, runs the dining room with charm, ably assisted by Doki Okere, a Nigerian-born sommelier who exudes enthusiasm. He is now a year into his new career and had the perspicacity to confess that 'the more I learn in this role, the more I realise there is to learn'.
The ornate chandelier, a remnant of the site's former incarnation as a bank, adds a touch of history. But far more importantly, what Greenaway exemplified was the sense of confidence that now pervades a growing number of Scottish chefs. Scotland has long produced an extraordinary range of wonderful ingredients, too many of which regrettably have ended up being prepared in the kitchens of France, Spain and Italy. Today, however, Edinburgh's kitchens have the talent and the discerning palates to enable them to prepare the best Scottish ingredients to exceptionally high standards.
And in a poetic twist of fate, two of these Scottish chefs are now operating in what were formerly bastions of France and Italy.
Cafe St Honoré (left) still looks like a clone of everyone's ideal Parisian bistro, but its highly polished interior and engaging waitresses are immediate signs of the confidence that stems from a kitchen under the guidance of the genial Neil Forbes.
To the pillars of sustainability and working with the most empathetic suppliers, Forbes brings another particular Scottish trait – he writes his menu with a natural economy of style. There is nothing florid nor any unnecessary verbiage in the five first or main courses on offer. But they all pack great flavour.
An individual, round quiche of wild garlic with Maisie Kebbuck cheese (an unpasteurised cow's milk cheese made in Lanarkshire by Humphrey Errington for his mother-in-law) was a delight. The loin and crisp belly of lamb, raised by Hugh and Sacha Grierson in Perthshire, was rich and succulent. Forbes' prices are economical too, with dinner for two without wine or service costing £67.
Tom Kitchin, whose first restaurant, The Kitchin in Leith, provided the setting for him to harness all he had learnt while cooking in Paris to the bounty of Scotland's larder, has now opened The Scran & Scallie as 'a public house with dining' at 1 Comely Bank Road, Stockbridge.
For over 30 years this address has been an Italian restaurant run by an Italian family who still retain the fish-and-chip shop next door. But the building's new identity is now unequivocally Scottish, from its name, Scran & Scallie ('food and children' for those outside Scotland); to its range of Scottish beers on tap, including Edinburgh Gold; to a menu of oysters, fish pie, venison sausages and braised hogget; to a warm Scottish welcome from Bridget Bradley, its Edinburgh-born manager.
On this showing, whatever the voters may say in September, Edinburgh is unquestionably the UK's second best city for restaurants.
Restaurant Mark Greenaway 69 North Castle Street, Edinburgh; tel 0131 226 1155
Cafe St Honoré 34 North West Thistle Street Lane, Edinburgh; tel 0131 226 2211
The Scran & Scallie 1 Comely Bank Road, Stockbridge; tel 0131 332 6281