A ‘surprise’ tasting menu at an Edinburgh fine-dining mainstay shows that excellence has not become complacent with success, writes Arun Kakar
Any gourmand familiar with Edinburgh will doubtless be aware if of Tom Kitchin, the doyen of its competitive dining field.
Kitchin’s name is spread across town. There’s his signature outlet the Kitchin, as well as a host of other ‘sister’ venues including rotisserie Southside Scran, gastropub Scran & Scallie, and Castle Terrace, which Kitchin opened with chef pal Dominic Jack a decade ago and where Spear’s is deciding to spend its evening after a quick stop-off in the city.
Talking about the Castle Terrace, which describes itself as ‘modern British cuisine influenced by learned French cooking techniques’ is quite difficult. Spear’s opted for the ‘surprise’ tasting menu, you see. We don’t want to spoil any of its surprises.
Tucked around a corner near to Edinburgh Castle, the modesty of the restaurant’s Georgian exterior does little to boast about its stature. Jack is a chef regarded for innovation – a sometimes dangerous prospect – which he’s honed though various stints at decorated institutions across Europe such as the Les Elysées in Paris.
Refurbished four years ago to the tune of £1 million, Castle Terrace is modern in the way that attempts to communicate sophistication to its visitors. We’re talking subdued colours, recurring patterns, dark wood flooring, and a tasteful deployment of art, the main piece of which is a navy blue depiction of the Edinburgh Castle. The tempo of the background music never appears to deviate over the evening.
It’s a quiet night, more staff than diners in fact. There’s someone to take my bag, another to guide me to my seat in the cosy bar area. I’m then handed a cocktail menu and a wine list that’s almost as thick as the Spear’s 500. This is a selection that you can go around the world twice with and connoisseurs will find plenty of cause for excitement, with no shortage of rarities and treats buried in the pages.
Deciding to opt for cocktails, I am recommended a winter highball, an amenable remedy to a cold day. Fruity and citrusy, it’s as warming as the fire I’m sat next to and is made all the better by the amuse-bouches. All I’ll reveal here is that my understanding of goat’s cheese was enhanced tremendously by an item no larger than a lychee. If that sounds confusing it’s because it was – and delicious too.
As I take my seat, ready for the ‘surprise’ tasting menu, I realise that I’ve essentially handed my total trust over to the chef and sommelier. Thankfully this is rewarded, as I’m soon to find out.
As well as the initial surprise of the dishes arriving at the table, this is a tasting menu that twists and turns with each of its courses. It hops continents, often in the same dish, playing with one’s notions of familiarity in food in ways that are often ingenious. On several occasions, dishes confound one’s visual expectation.
The ‘burger’, for instance, is not a burger in the typical sense, despite its being presented in Haribo-perfect fashion. The bun is chickpea, the ketchup is tomato reduction, the patty is barbecued pork shoulder and the cheese is a pickled turnip. A tad gimmicky? A little too playful? If the dish wasn’t so exquisite then I might agree. I mean, even the stick holding it all together is edible.
Another standout is a generous scallop curry (caught from divers in the Orkney sea) served with basmati rice and small flakes of naan. Erring on the side of mild, the quality of the mollusc is allowed to come to the forefront but is nonetheless aromatic and artful. It’s a dish that demands time to savour, not least because of its richness – something of a theme of the menu as a whole.
Take the dessert, a chunky cardamom and chocolate éclair ice cream which is presented elegantly – a slab of layered creams and dense, sugary flavours. It’s sickly, gloopy and a whole lot of fun. One certainly couldn’t enjoy this every day, but it’s certainly an occasion to savour.
This is not a tasting menu for the light of appetite. The courses keep on coming, and the flavours initially clash, and then blend together so coherently that the experience is more like treating the tastebuds to a show rather than a meal. I won’t say how many courses there are exactly, but a small lunch is advised.
It’s all bolstered by a winning wine pairing. Sommelier Joel won’t just stop at his selections, but will explain and discuss the choices. Each bottle has a biography, and each glass achieves a perfect marriage with every plate. It’s only when it happens so well that one realises how rare this is.
A tour below the stairs into the busy kitchen and cellar after my meal confirms that entrusting the selection of dish and drink to the experts was a wise idea. It’s simply been an excellent evening, and it’s all the better for the element of surprise that continued to astound and delight. Let Jack and his team do the talking, and you won’t be disappointed.