Norn a nutshell
Dining at Norn (in the site of the old Plumed Horse) is, put simply, an incredible experience; it’s a few hours of your life that you will savour for a long time.
Named after the extinct 19th century Norse dialect of the Orkney and Shetland islands, Norn puts ingredients, seasonality, sourcing and creativity at the forefront. It has definite edge – The Rolling Stones are playing on the jukebox, front of house has cool moss linen aprons, and you’ll get a visit from each of the chefs in the kitchen over the course of your meal. It feels young, different and exciting.
Enjoy the extremely reasonable three-course lunch for £20, or indulge in a four- or seven-course tasting menu (with the option of matched wines) for a more leisurely experience.
Chef Scott Smith created Norn. He’s a protégé of Geoffrey Smeddle, award-winning chef and food columnist and owner of The Peat Inn near St Andrews.
Taking care of the wine list is sommelier and natural wine expert Sandro Colavolpe, previously of Brawn and Terroirs.
What are they cooking
Norn is all about fixed tasting menus; you have the option of four (£40) or seven (£65) courses at dinner, and any dietary requirements can be catered for if notified in advance. Our menu was numbered ‘14’, which considering our visit was only on week six of Norn’s life puts some perspective on how quickly the menu changes.
Seasonality is crucial here – most evidently with the use of foraged ingredients. Scott bakes beremeal sourdough and thick slices of it are served with homemade cultured butter. Beremeal is an ancient strain of barley and is difficult to work with due to its low gluten content, but this sourdough is perfection. You’ll be offered more throughout your meal and will undoubtedly want to take a loaf home with you – it’s that good.
The fixed menus promote all that Scotland’s larder has to offer and are dictated by the seasons, the weather and, of course, the date of your dinner. A tomato tartare ‘snack’ with capers and wild garlic flowers was served before the menu proper and was powerfully flavoursome – now we know what tomatoes should taste like!
Each course was presented by one of the chefs, rather than front of house. A nice touch, because it gave us chance to ask about the dish and its component parts. First up was mackerel, cicely, radish and lemon served with a gazpacho poured at the table. It was so fresh; the perfect summer dish. Sea to plate in hours, we suspect. Next, potato, crab, onion and buttermilk. Hours of hard work had gone into the potato to give it an oaky smokiness. Crab was tender and delicious, topped with seeds from Scottish rapeseed.
Asparagus with a pea and sorrel foam was course number three. Juicy asparagus really can’t be beaten and we were one of the last few customers to enjoy this dish before the season ended. Crunchy sea salt topped it off – exquisite. Cod was paired with salt cod, charred fennel (it had perfect bite) and elderflower for course number four, matched superbly with a muscadet amphilbolite 2014.
A main of chicken, mushroom, cavolo nero and lovage had serious in-your-face flavours with crispy chicken skin and a sauce that just shouted Sunday roast. Cavolo nero provided the perfect accompaniment; by this point in the meal the omission of carbs was welcomed.
On to desserts. Firstly there was woodruff, ground ivy, popcorn and rhubarb – an interesting combination that provided an almost bitter taste on the palate; if you’ve a sweet tooth, you may want a dessert wine to accompany it. No problem for us, although the moscato d’asti did a splendid job on the matching front providing a little bit of sweetness. Rhubarb foam and woodruff ice cream provided a cacophony of tastes: bitter, salty, sweet, buttery, fruity and tart.
Dessert number two was strawberry, almond, chocolate and water mint – a light ending to the Norn experience. Scottish strawberry ‘crisps’ melted on the tongue and the water mint held its own well.
The thought and time that has gone in to each dish on the Norn menu is clear. Local producers are used at all times, there’s a definite consideration for ingredients, and an overarching respect for sustainability can’t be shouted about enough. This is seriously good cooking.
What’s the room like/atmosphere
The dining room has 36 covers, 32 seated at tables and four on stools at the bar overlooking the kitchen. Natural woods, grey carpet and off-white walls give Norn an airy modern, Scandinavain feel.
An open plan kitchen is great for people-watching – there’s a buzz back there, but overall the space is calm and quiet, with an air of confidence. You’ll pass the wine cellar on your way to the bathrooms, as well as shelves packed with fermented this, pickled that, infused something else… you name it, they’ve got it.
Go for the seven-course menu. It highlights the capabilities of the kitchen, their creativity and the passion that has been put into each dish. A three-course lunch at £20 is a steal, and one we’ll be back for soon.
If you’re unfamiliar with natural wines, then dining at Norn will give you the opportunity to understand a little more about them. Organic, biodynamic, traditionally made natural wines make up 95% of the drinks menu at Norn.
If you need help choosing then the charming sommelier Sandro Colavolpe is there to help you out. He’s a natural wine expert and his matches were spot on all evening. Our chicken, for example, was matched with a red wine (Thirst gamay 2015) that was light enough to almost be a rose.
What else did you like/dislike?
Service was exceptional, but not over the top. We didn’t feel fussed over and staff were brilliant at determining when we needed a short break midway through the meal.
We particularly enjoyed speaking to all the chefs and asking questions about various aspects of our meal – it completed our dining experience.
The simplest ingredients have been treated with the utmost respect here, and Norn should be setting its sights on a Michelin star. It’s incredible, and I don’t think you’ll experience anything else like it in Edinburgh at the moment.
Witten by Hilary Sturzaker (mymonkfish.com), June 2016
50-54 Henderson Street
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