I had forgotten how beautiful Edinburgh is. Not in a mimsy, cottages-and-window-boxes kind of way, but with a craggy handsomeness that stops you in your tracks. Turn an urban corner and you catch glimpses of crag and silvery Forth; austere grey exteriors give way to light-filled, high-ceilinged rooms – welcome to Auld Reekie’s many paradoxes.
We’re staying in one of the butchest of all the imposing terraces, at 21212 – luxurious home from home if you happen to be a beetlebrowed Scottish laird. The lofty, classic dimensions have been softened and lent quirkiness with moth and thistle carpets and blowsy Caravaggio murals. We arrive on a Monday when the hotel’s Michelin starred restaurant is closed, and it seems like we have the entire place to ourselves, a spooky and not entirely unpleasant experience. Especially when we realise that gasp-inducing Italian super-deli Valvona and Crolla is only a stagger away.
For a city with such a strong Calvinist streak, Edinburgh’s boozers are astonishingly sybaritic. Just look at the exuberant tiling in the Kenilworth, Edinburgh’s top gay hangout when I lived there – still deliciously camp thanks to exuberant Edwardian bedizening. Or the Guildford, with its riot of gilded ornamentation.
Or our dinner destination, the gorgeous – in the truest sense – Café Royal. We’re in the baroque oyster bar, one of the loveliest rooms in Britain, complete with ghost. Perhaps that’s who’s cooking: apart from the un-faffed with bounty of the sea – ozoney, meaty oysters – it’s not a happy dinner. ‘Home-smoked delights’ are a little curly and fatigued; Stornoway black pudding and apple gratin is nothing of the sort, and features sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. Why would you do that to a blameless black pudding?
A more successful destination is The Dogs, a joint that shook up staid Edinburgh by offering excellent Scottish ingredients at remarkably affordable prices. In a beautiful New Town room we find macho, well-executed, cheap-cuts-andoffal cooking. Pig’s trotter and pig’s ear salad is a little too hardcore for me, but D loves it. I’m just devastated there’s no pork pie left. But then I’m always devastated by the absence of pork pie.
Edinburgh’s showing us her best profile, then things start to go, as locals would say, agley. We’re supposed to be going to The Kitchin, where the eponymous Tom is showstopping with his sophisticated, assured cooking. But we’re kidnapped – seriously, bundled into a car – by a new friend (yes, you, Billy Day of Bacchus Antiques) and compelled to go to The Canny Man’s (239 Morningside Rd; 0131 447 1484) in crooked-pinkie Morningside.
Instead of grooving on the likes of ravioli with lambs’ sweetbreads or rump of Dornoch hogget, we’re in a room that seems to have been decorated by a serial killer with a penchant for expensive malts, choosing from a menu of a thousand and one open sandwiches. There’s a terrifying, Nurse Ratched-like dame in charge; clientele is a weird mix of louche chaps and neat old ladies. ‘Neat?’ scoffs Billy. ‘They’d eat you alive.’ Of course, I absolutely love it.
The afternoon degenerates. I vaguely remember a two-headed dachshund in Scotland’s oldest pub, The Sheep Heid Inn a dark, atmospheric howff [haunt] in the village of Duddingston. (It isn’t, it’s one daschund on top of another.) And some lurid stovies, a Scottish delicacy of layered potatoes ‘stoved’ with onions and mince, in the elegant Cumberland Bar.
Coffee. Bring me COFFEE. On foodie enclave Broughton Street is Artisan Roast, a teeny temple of serenity for those who worship the reviving bean, wallpapered in old coffee sacks. Earnest, beardy boys serve their own roasts and blends; we have a staggeringly good house espresso, and chilli, vanilla and cinnamon hot chocolate to a soundtrack of swamp rock. A sign reads ‘JK Rowling never wrote here’.
Edinburgh now boasts more Michelin stars than any UK city apart from London. And our meal at 21212 deserves every spike of its sparkler – it’s a humorous and clever romp without losing sight of deliciousness: plates look like elaborate puzzles, ingredients deliver snort-making surprises like parchment made from mushrooms, or smoked salmon with fingernail-sized buttered crumpets, all in a room that looks like Shrek’s pulling parlour. But a surprise highlight of our trip is a modest one. Haymarket’s frantic, rackety Chop Chop serves some of the best dumplings I’ve tasted outside Hong Kong. Jiao zi, chewy little boiled numbers; guo tie, potstickers of a violently addictive nature, especially the beef and chilli; even peanut dumplings for pudding.
Edinburgh can be as deluxe or as grungy as you want it to be – designer food in soigné surroundings or a surprise thrill in a clattery canteen. Not to mention the frisson of the, erm, unexpected. But rediscovering its severe beauty is the biggest thrill of all.
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)
Written January 2011