Over the last twenty years Leith, the declining port of Edinburgh, has witnessed a redevelopment which has transformed it into the seat of the Scottish Executive and a modernised residential and retail centre, alive with new restaurants and wine bars which serve as a magnet for the leisure and social life of the capital.
Tom Kitchin opened his eponymous restaurant here in June 2006. The Michelin star awarded after just six months and held ever since testifies to the prodigious talent of this young chef patron. Now, five and a half years later, his cooking continues to go from strength to strength, fully justifying the critical acclaim it has received.
Not that the setting and décor of The Kitchen gives much indication of the gastronomic delights that await the diner. Seen from the main road, the exterior of the restaurant – part of a converted two storey whiskey warehouse – is so understated it can easily be missed. In fact this is the back view. On the opposite side, the glass fronted main entrance, accessed from a quayside piazza, is more impressive, with a conservatory style bar on the right and attractive displays of wine in the corridor leading to the dining room. Here, as if to focus attention on the food, the curtains are drawn, even at lunchtime, and the décor and furnishings are essentially simple and functional. Large, well spaced tables lack the fine napery associated with a fine dining restaurant. The dark green walls and grey carpeting are relieved by well directed spotlighting, whilst a large internal window, the source of most natural light, also gives views of the kitchen.
What does impress, however, is the excited buzz and warm feel that comes from diners genuinely enjoying their food, which contrasts with the hushed reverential tones and stiff formality so often encountered in fine dining restaurants. It is a tribute to all concerned that the considerable skills in the kitchen are balanced with the relaxed, unintimidating atmosphere of the dining room.
Using classical training gained in the top ranked restaurants, including those of Guy Savoy, Alan Ducasse and his acknowledged mentor Pierre Koffman, Tom Kitchin’s modern British cuisine emphasises pure, often bold flavours and simple, elegant presentation. Innovative dishes such as bone marrow and snails or beef carpaccio with foie gras beignet appear alongside classics like hare royale and game terrine. Saucing enhances rather than overwhelms the main component, plates are not overcomplicated with excessive garnishes, and due care is given to balance tastes and textures. Great skill is demonstrated in the timing of cooking and in the combination of ingredients. His “Nature to Plate” philosophy of food also celebrates the bounty of top quality, seasonal and largely Scottish produce, its provenance being given due credit on the menu. Seafood and game are, naturally, major strengths. The winter menu, offering an embarrassment of riches, features razor clams from Arisaig, Orkney scallops, West Coast squat lobster, Shetland cod and Scrabster turbot. Alongside these are red legged partridge and roe deer from the Borders, Hare from Humbie and Woodcock from Perthshire
The menu structure accommodates a range of pockets and appetites. As a cheaper, but no less accomplished alternative to the carte, the set lunch menu, with three choices in each of three courses, provides outstanding value at £26.50, or £31.50 with cheese as an extra course. A surprise tasting menu comprising seven items, coffee and petit fours is priced at £70. Wine pairings are also offered with these two menus.
A lunchtime visit to The Kitchin in early December revealed its qualities to the full.
A selection of winter crudités, including radishes, carrot and celery, provided clean, crunchy nibbles whilst perusing the menu. How pleasing, also, to see crudités, which have almost disappeared from fine dining restaurants, being offered at all.
The breads, which included sour dough, granary, black olive, and tomato, had crisp crusts and firm crumb, the black olive being particularly flavoursome.
As an amuse bouche, a small bowl of impeccably clear chicken consommé was enlivened by apple, cabbage and grapes. This was an unusual, bold combination which worked.
The first course from the set lunch menu featured a raviolo of silk like pasta generously filled with beautifully sweet West Coast shellfish. It was surrounded by deeply flavoured, lightly foamed langoustine bisque, given added warmth by a light curried spicing. Vegetable julienne provided a contrasting texture to this accomplished dish. The fruity acidity of the accompanying white wine was a good foil for the richness of the food. (Wine: Pacharenc du Vic Bilh sec Domaine Berthomieu 2009 Gers France)
Next came a signature dish from the carte. Steamed razor clams (sproots), were precisely timed to preserve their sweet, succulent taste and delicate texture. Combined with diced al dente vegetables and chorizo sausage in a cream sauce, the richness was cut by the addition of lemon confit. This dish, beautifully presented in its shell and topped with grilled squid, was a tour de force of harmonious tastes and textures. The zesty citrus tang and minerality of the Riesling was, again, a fitting wine match. (Wine: Riesling Little Beauty 2010 Malborough New Zealand.)
The main course, taken from the “Celebration of the Season” menu for a supplement, was roasted woodcock. Again, skilled cooking allowed all the gaminess of this prized bird to be enjoyed at it medium rare best. The presentation was classical, with the head and long beak split lengthways so the delicate brains could be scooped out. The crouton, spread with a puree of the cooked innards and foie gras, gave an intense, strong flavour, complemented by a powerful salmis sauce which brought the dish together. Roasted pumpkin puree, salsify, potato gnocchi, and sprouts were simple vegetable accompaniments balancing this robust, bold flavour of the woodcock. Equally intense was the Spanish wine, the black fruit qualities of which complemented the game well. (Wine: Ribera Del Duero Crianza Valduero Spain 2007)
For dessert on the set menu, a chocolate chip soufflé, was well risen and had a light and fluffy texture. Equally accomplished was a velvety smooth chocolate ice cream. The dessert wine, aged for thirteen years in Armagnac casks, had concentrated flavour but was nevertheless fresh on the palate. (Wine:Antic Muscat Consolation Riversaltes 1996)
Good expresso coffee and well made petit fours – nougat, chocolate truffle, mini tartlet and macaroon – completed a flawless, memorable meal.
Service was excellent: professional without being stuffy; attentive without being obtrusive; and knowledgeable without being patronising. As seen above, the sommelier masterly paired wines with the food. Overseeing the front of house in a fully booked lunch service of some 60 covers was maitre d’ Sylvain, whose welcoming charm puts diners at their ease.
It is hardly surprising that The Kitchin has a strong local following as well as attracting many from further afield. In a period of economic austerity, it continues to thrive both as a neighbourhood and destination restaurant, a testament to the passion of its founder and the hard work of his team. In a city that now boasts five Michelin starred restaurants, The Kitchin will clearly hold its own in the competitive world of fine dining.