During our collective domestic incarceration I perfected several dishes in my own kitchen. Or at least practiced, for the day friends and guests return. Improbably bright yellow omelettes with their own Instagram backlash. Ragged but tasty Thai fishcakes. All made from ingredients brought to my door by local shops who had a van: salad, wine, fresh fish, and wine. Domestic self-isolation was almost bliss. With wine.
Forays to eat out remain hesitant. I’ve learned to deeply mistrust anything any government minister says and instead struggle to process the COVID-19 data myself. God it’s difficult. Deep pocketed London chains beckoned first, with wildly expensive airport-style temperature cameras at the door; bare, socially distanced tables sporting hand sanitisers instead of cutlery, and QR codes replacing menus. All gratifying and appreciated, if a tad sterile. In one, where a speck of pepper caught in my throat as I ordered, the place turned into a Bateman cartoon. “The Man Who Coughed In The Ivy”
Pork scratchings, styled after The Day of the Triffids with the textural crunch of windscreen glass, are special
The first drink-after-work-on-a-Friday saw us turned away from our near empty local at 5pm (we hadn’t booked) then sat in another pub’s car park struggling to make their ordering app work (we failed) before standing on a grassy common outside a third drinking from paper cups hoping it wouldn’t rain. We agreed this Friday-after-work thing needed a little work.
And so arriving in Leith – Edinburgh’s dockside Shoreditch – we secured a table at The Kitchin, the eponymous Michelin starred eatery of Tom, the TV chef, which has for nearly fifteen years delivered top notch scran to the discerning. You can use “scran” quite safely here, without fear of ending up in Pseud’s Corner, as Mr Kitchin’s mini Edinburgh empire includes a pub called The Scran & Scallie whose menu is liberally strewn with the vernacular, allegedly inspired by history, Rabbie Burns and Auld Scots, but sounding more straightforward, like Glaswegian. Yes, there are people who say things like “Sit Ye Doon Yer Welcome” and list vegetables as “nae fish nae meat“, it’s just they tend not to frequent expensive gastropubs in salubrious Edinburgh neighbourhoods like Stockbridge. If you’re born in one city and brought up in the other, like me, it grates just a smidge. But no matter, the food’s good and the pork scratchings, styled after The Day of the Triffids with the textural crunch of windscreen glass, are special.
But my spoots have arrived, a starter back in Tom’s more elegant restaurant, The Kitchin, two miles away. Spoots – you’ve heard of them, right? Don’t lie, you haven’t. They’re razor clams which live beneath the sandy beaches of Scotland’s more remote islands. Apparently a few fisherfolk call them spoots because they “spoot” (spout/spit) water into the air.
Subjected to flames and overcooking the world over, someone in The Kitchin kitchen knows razor clams only require a few seconds heat, before being chopped up with a few cubes of chorizo and vegetable, a sprinkling of foraged herb under a top hat of crisscrossed squid. Voila – deliciously spootacular.
The Kitchin is a slick operation. The man himself appeared at one point to smile, chat and make sure all was well FoH. It was. The staff have a spring in their step – girls in cool grey short skirted outfits, boys in matching knee-length kilts. Masks are co-ordinated too. As you might expect, a small chain sprouting books and TV requires a motto, “From Nature to Plate“, to reinforce the on-message message. It could easily have been “Scotland on a Plate” which is exactly what I got next, a dish of technical mastery and sublime taste that almost had me forsaking my new beloved, those spoots.
Two surgically carved, bright red rectangles of Roe Deer loin had bite, flavour and succulence. This was good meat, well-handled and hung, roasted with precision. It may be the best venison I’ve ever eaten. The whole thing was plated with ultra-local accompaniments my Borders Bambi may even have grazed on personally: brambles, berries, ceps and a small Scottish joke – mashed neeps and mini swedes. In Scotland turnips (neeps) are turnips, and swedes are swedes, simple. Whereas in England turnips are actually swedes and swedes turnips. Confused? Don’t worry, everybody else is too. On the plate, correctly identifying vegetables is a matter of heritage. Yours, not theirs.
A side of plain looking puree topped with stew and a quaver turned out to be a flavoursome wet polenta supporting long braised, darker strands of deeply savoury haunch. The curly potato puff was to scoop up (or in my case hoover up) the satisfying gloop. I nearly licked the plate clean. The other one too after doing that thing, cutting smaller and smaller bites, trying to delay the inevitable end.
This wasn’t just dinner, it was a celebration to herald the end of dystopia. There should have been crashing cymbals and a fanfare of brass. Amidst the chaotic politics of uncertainty and who-does-what-next, stretching out far beyond the Westminster bubble, The Kitchin’s reassuringly expert operation is a standard bearer for native excellence. If this could be the new normal, we’d all be happy. C
The Kitchin, 78 Commercial Quay, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6LX
0131-555 1755; thekitchin.com