Scotland is cool. Scotland is hip. Major food magazines are discovering Scotland, as well they should. You can eat like a king in Scotland, and the scenery ain’t bad either.
By way of background, I’ve been working off-and-on in Edinburgh for the last ten months. For much of last year, I was there three weeks out of every four. Lately, it’s one week out of four. I’ve eaten in dozens of different restaurants, and on each trip I sample at least one place I haven’t been before. This week, I took in three restaurants that were new to me.
Oloroso (33 Castle Street), which is only about two years old, won Tony Singh “Scottish Restaurant Chef of The Year” in 2003. The website observes:
Oloroso, which is Spanish for aromatic and is also a style of sherry, occupies a key top floor corner site on Edinburgh’s bustling George Street. Due to its unique position, the large roof terrace provides stunning views across both the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh Castle.
The décor is modern, sleek, and spare. As there is no street entrance, Oloroso’s foot traffic is probably next to none. Nevertheless, it was comfortably full on my Monday night visit, so the word has gotten out. Note that the lifts go only to the third floor, so you need to be able to climb a flight of stairs.
Until Oloroso, I had found only two types of fine dining experiences in Edinburgh: Scottish and French (or some mixture of the two). Singh finds his own way, and this alone makes Oloroso worth a visit. A few of the dishes have an obvious Indian inspiration, but it is not an Indian restaurant. I ordered crawfish and asparagus risotto to start, followed by filet of ostrich. If you haven’t had ostrich, it’s a red mea tasting somewhat like venison. It came with a tangy dipping sauce, which is perhaps a nod to Singh’s Indian roots.
The menu changes daily, with most appetizers priced around £7 and most mains around £17. There is also a grill menu offering several cuts of Scottish beef. My dinner, with one drink and without wine, came to £31, including tip. To sample the work of a fine chef like Singh, this is an extraordinary bargain, and there seems to be no other restaurant in Edinburgh quite like it. Oloroso is definitely worth a look, both for the food and the scenery.
Edinburgh has just two Michelin star restaurants: Number One, in the basement of the Balmoral Hotel, and Martin Wishart, at 54 The Shore in the port district of Leith. I’ve been to Number One several times, but Tuesday was my first trip to Martin Wishart.
While Wishart’s food may be comparable to Jeff Bland’s at Number One, the surroundings most assuredly are not. Enter Number One’s basement location, and you are instantly transported. In Wishart’s storefront on a busy street, the food must compete with noisy distractions.
Martin Wishart’s mission is to persuade you to order one of the tasting menus. The five-course tasting menu is priced at £48. (There is also a six-course menu.) Order an appetizer and main course a la carte, and it will set you back about £40 before dessert, so you might as well take the tasting menu. The waitstaff hints disingenuously that Wishart sometimes throws surprises into the tasting menu, but in fact everything they served was available a la carte. I compared notes with some colleagues who’d been to Wishart’s recently, and they had the same experience of “surprises” hinted at, but not delivered.
Every course arrives with an essay-length oration about what you are eating. Nothing at Martin Wishart is simple. The amuse-bouche was four tasty bites, all different, arranged like an art sculpture. Amusing indeed, but I forgot the essay and had no idea what they were. A starter of asparagus and tiny strings of calimari failed to impress, but the next three courses were all winners: rabbit terrine, monkfish over a mackerel puree, and duck (marinated for two days, we’re told). All of these came with similar essay-length descriptions that I cannot recall. The meal ended with a “pre-dessert” (some kind of yogurt confection) and a small dessert course (cherries, pistachio ice cream, and something else from the bakery oven that tasted absolutely heavenly).
As with most tasting menus at restaurants like Wishart’s, the sommelier will happily recommend a different wine for each course, but that’s more wine than I can take on a work night, or indeed on most any night, after I’ve already had a pre-dinner cocktail. He did recommend a sensible glass of white to go with the first part of the meal, and a côte du rhone to go with the end of it.
All of this cost about £71 for one, including tip.
I have seldom found a truly impressive steak in Britain, but I keep trying to find one. The search has ended. Champany Inn cannot be bettered. Located in the town of Linlithgow, Champany is about 30 minutes’ drive from Central Edinburgh. It’s run by a husband and wife team, Clive and Anne Davidson. Anne is visible all evening long, while Clive heads the kitchen.
This quote is from the website:
The buildings at Champany Corner that now make up Champany Inn, date from the 16th Century and the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. These buildings now house sixteen luxury bedrooms, the Main Dining Room specialising in Aberdeen Angus beef and Shetland Salmon and our award winning cellar which has been voted the Best in Britain on two occasions. The smaller Chop and Ale House offers bistro style meals and serves probably the best hamburger in Britain.
The ill-defined Michelin ratings claim that one star is “worth a stop,” two stars is “worth a detour,” and three stars is “worth a trip.” By this definition, Champanys is a two-star experience. It is without doubt worth a detour, and indeed a very significant one. Given that it is located in the middle of nowhere, many have obviously found it worth a trip on its own. This is the most memorable meal I have had in Edinburgh, and I have had plenty of very good ones.
The restaurant will happily offer you a choice from any number of non-beef dishes, such as duck, salmon, langoustines, or lobster. But beef is Champany’s raison d’etre, and it’s beef that all four in our party had. Three of us chose the porterhouse, one the sirloin. Champany’s offers a variety of cuts, including stip loin, ribeye, Pope’s eye (ever heard of that), or chateaubriand. Whichever you choose, you get a thick, hearty piece of meat cooked to perfection. The website explains:
Clive Davidson is proud of his meat. He selects his beef from herds of prime cattle grazing off acres of lush Aberdeenshire countryside. The carcasses are hung for a full three weeks during which all the succulent flavours that have made Scottish beef such an internationally renowned delicacy, are held and matured.
Before placing on the grill the beef is first dipped into an exclusive sauce created specially by Clive for sealing the meat so that none of the precious flavours escape. As he explained, “All steaks should be sealed before grilling, and you can do this quite simply by sprinkling them with brown sugar. Once on the grill this will caramelise, sealing the meat and encouraging the outer flesh to cook quickly while the inside remains pink and moist”. However, Clive’s secret recipe for his sauce contains other special ingredients that will enhance still further the flavours of the naturally tender meat.
Starters are similarly impressive. Champany’s smokes its own salmon. Served hot, with hollandaise sauce, the taste is exquisite. As at many steakhouses, portions are enormous. This so-called “starter” could have been a main course at many restaurants. Quoting the website again:
Words almost fail me to describe the subtle excellence of the hot smoked salmon. Fleshy and succulent, it can be cut with a fork which breaks it into pungent morsels of sublime Scottish salmon warm and aromatic with a surprisingly gentle woody bouquet.
Champany’s is elegantly decorated, with its oak panel dining room and candle-lit tables. Service is luxurious. To go with the ample wine list previously mentioned, Champany’s has an impressive selection of liqeurs, aperitifs, and single malt whiskys. They even distil their own cognac (while of course offering many others), which we found surprisingly good.
Dinner for four, including before and after-dinner drinks, appetizers, steaks, side dishes, and two bottes of modestly-priced wine, ran to £370.