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Number One in Edinburgh

Edinburgh has two Michelin star restaurants: Number One and Martin Wishart. I tried the tasting menu at Wishart’s a couple of months ago, and last week I decided to see what Number One could do. While both restaurants have their strengths, I would have to give the slight edge to Number One.

Located in the basement of the Edinburgh’s marquis hotel, the Balmoral, Number One exudes a sense of luxury. There is an ample and comfortably appointed lounge area to enjoy a drink before sitting down for your meal. The walls have a dark, highly polished sheen. They’re covered with small modern artworks that don’t distract you, but in fact are witty and eclectic if you take the time to study them. The tables and banquettes are plush and generously spaced.

The service at Number One is impeccable. As I watched them operate over two and a half hours, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the teamwork and precision. A team of five servers covered the whole restaurant (it is not that large, and not all the tables were taken), and while they had their individual duties, they operated as a coordinated unit. Now the sommelier serves you a glass of wine, and the next moment he’s serving appetizers at the next table. Now the lovely French woman is serving your soufflé, and the next moment she’s refilling wine glasses at the opposite corner of the restaurant.

I ordered the chef’s tasting menu with paired wines, which clocks in at £85 before tip. There were five courses plus two amuses and six glasses of wine in this degustation. Although most of the portions were small, as you’d expect on a tasting menu, I walked out quite full, and in fact skipped breakfast the next morning. All of the dishes were plated beautifully, in designs clearly intended to delight the eye as well as the stomach.

I had never ordered a full wine pairing before. It adds a significant premium to the meal, but I have to say it’s worth it. You get a selection of diverse wines that is expertly chosen to suit the menu, quite a few of which you probably would never order on your own. They are smaller pours than wine ordered by the glass, but with six of them included it’s about as much as most people care to drink. I did have trouble pacing myself, though: you were never sure how much time you had before the next course was to arrive.

Your meal begins with freshly-cut bread. A server wheels over a cart, with six large breads baked that day. You choose one (mine was walnut grain), and he cuts off a slice. Soft butter is already there on your table. A few minutes later he’s back to offer more. The bacon bread tempted me, but I held off, knowing there was much to come.

The amuse-bouche was a tiny cup of tomato consommé, which I found a bit disappointing. The more successful amuses-bouches display some culinary wit, which this uninspired dish lacked. The champagne paired with it was similarly unexciting.

A wonderful foie gras came next, served with oatcakes and mushroom chutney. It was paired with an intense New Zealand fruit wine that complemented the liver taste perfectly. The fish course was a scallop in a light curry sauce, accompanied by braised oxtail. This was the hit of the evening, and unfortunately that lonely scallop was gone all too quickly. This is the drawback of a tasting menu.

The meat course was less successful. Six slender lamb medallions were sufficiently tender and tasty, but I’ve had far better lamb elsewhere. Sauces are Number One’s strength, but this lamb was served in its own juices. Nothing was done to raise it above the ordinary. The grilled sweetbreads that came on the plate were far more memorable. Some writers have suggested that meat courses are not as well suited to a tasting menu, because they require larger portions to make a culinary statement. I can certainly see the point, although I’ll have to try the format a few more times before deciding whether that’s true.

The cheese course was generous to a fault. The server wheeled over a cart with a wide range of selections. I told him I preferred the exotic and offbeat, and he cut six thick slices. It’s easy to order a $15 cheese course in New York and get three skimpy pieces, so this was refreshing indeed. He asked if I wanted any more, so there didn’t seem to be a hard limit. Anyhow, at six pieces this was a more substantial course than the entrées had been, so I thought it best to stop there (with dessert still to come). I can’t describe cheeses, but the six I sampled were wonderful. They were paired with a sweet port wine.

There was a small pre-dessert of apricots and cream, followed by the main dessert, a raspberry and white chocolate soufflé. This is a specialty dish at Number One, which I’ve had on previous visits. It came with a white dessert wine, which the sommelier described as a palate-cleanser. I’m still trying to guess what that means.

At US$200 (including tip), my splurge at Number One was well worth it. This could turn into an expensive hobby.

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