It was on a
recent trip to visit my friend Pille that I discovered a thoroughly charming restaurant which proves that Edinburgh does have some foodie gems to offer and Scotland is not all about haggis and neeps (as this same friend insists I must mention).
The Witchery by the Castle is a landmark of culinary Scotland, as much as the castle itself is a landmark for you average tourist. But I'm not your average tourist and if you're anything like me, I'd suggest you forget the castle altogether (it's much more impressive seen from a distance anyway) and rather spend the ridiculous entrance fee of £10.30 to pay towards a two-course lunch or pre-theatre menu (£12.95) at The Witchery.
The building dates back to the 16th century, when it was built for a wealthy merchant close to the castle gates, and later used to house a boarding school. It now has been converted into one of the most romantic hotels in the world and its seven lush and luxurious suites (with a daunting pricetag of £275 a night) - a beautiful and enchanted setting, indeed. The suites seem to be a mixture of 16th-century architecture paired with an indulging and lush decor (in a Harry Potter meets Casanova kind of way), and they're full of warm colours, plush pillows and other sensuous design details that seem like the perfect environment for a good romp with your loved one... if money is no object. It is these same suites which have caused The Cosmopolitan to call the Witchery "one of the seven wonders of the world", while Dannii Minogue describes it as "the perfect lust-den".
I wouldn't know about the latter, of course, as Pille and I had other desires to satisfy and took a table for an early dinner in the enchanted Secret Garden. This part of the restaurant is a converted old courtyard with massive stone walls and turrets, integrating many original features in its décor: the darkwood ceiling with carved beams, a stone staircase and elaborately painted wooden doors remeniscent of castles somewhere in Burgundy. The chairs are plump and heavy, comfortably upholstered and lined with smooth, dark brass-studded leather like you'd expect round a knights' table, the tables are beautifully laid on a brown velvet undercloth that falls onto the original stone floor, covered with white starched linen. There's no (perceived) electricity in this room, so the lighting comes exclusively from candles in massive antique candle holders. You couldn't wish for a more romantic setting.
The food, of course, couldn't be further from boarding school fare if it tried... James Thompson has gathered a kitchen-crew that could easily win any Michelin Stars or Gault Millau toques - and I am not sure why they haven't yet. Maybe because they do without a succession of elaborate amuse-bouches, trendy espumas and menus you need your French dictionary to decipher... The food concentrates on Scottish ingredients that can be locally sourced, so you know that your Buccleuch beef, straw-fed Duroc pork, Scottish oysters and wild salmon didn't take long to reach your table. I can't judge the whole menu, but I assume even more care goes into the à la carte dishes (mains range from £15 for very tempting vegetarian options to £30 for the beef and £35 for a massive seafood platter). We chose from the affordable pre-theatre menu (choice of three starters and three mains) and were not only satisfied, but in food heaven.
Pille enjoyed a salad (above) of mesclun, fennel, figs, quail's eggs and tomatoes in a caper, olive & red wine vinaigrette while I tucked into a slice of pan-fried smoked salmon fillet on a very simple samphire salad dressed with some sundried tomatoes and an exquisite olive oil. Despite being smoked and seared, the fish was surprisingly moist and the samphire retained enough crunch. We weren't shy to accept helping after helping of home-made tomato bread infused with rosemary, dense and moist on the inside and wonderfully crusty on the outside. With salted Echire butter, this could happily have constituted a course on its own.
For mains, Pille went for a beef patty with duck's egg and incredibly crispy chunky fries, stacked up neatly in a criss-cross fashion, and I indulged in my first fish pie ever and must say I couldn't have chosen a better moment for my initiation: a beautiful cast-iron Staub mini-cocotte contained succulent pieces of salmon, crayfish and haddock in a moreish and rich sauce, topped with creamy mashed potato, the top just browned in the oven. With the cocotte keeping this prefectly hot, I could have sat there eating this forever. But we didn't want to leave it at that (though if we had, we'd have left the restaurant paying under £30 for the two of us).
We simply couldn't resist the dessert platter and it was even better than we had imagined: six luxurious desserts beautifully presented on an oval plate, we didn't know what to tuck into first. Passion fruit jelly was served in a shot glass, topped with a light foam of mascarpone (the layered variety, thus retaining a subtle but distinctive hint of blue cheese), a slice of lemon tart was the perfect balance of the tart and the sweet and had lightly been blow-torched on top to form an ever-so-slight sliver caramel on top. Strawberry and balsamico parfait was slowly losing its shape on a thin layer of chocolate dough as we savoured a palate-cleansing blackcurrant icecream on a sail-shaped tuile. We had to still get through an indulgingly fruity, thick and velvety compote of raspberries, served lukewarm, before we allowed ourselves to sink into the pleasure that was the chocolate tart: a very dark affair of incredibly thick and smooth chocolate cream with a thin and crisp base accompanied by lavender icecream served on a cocoa-scented lace cookie... if we needed any more convincing that the Witchery is a great place to have dinner, this plate would have certainly done the trick, sending us straight to dessert heaven. Almost sobbing for joy, I had to finish off all the fudge and chocolate truffles that were served with our coffees before heading out into an early night, once again contemplating what a dreadful place this planet would be without fine restaurants... and The Witchery is definitely one to put on your list!