On two successive recent nights in Edinburgh we had dinner at restaurants operated by one of Scotland's most well regarded chefs, Tom Kitchin: The Kitchin, his pull-out-all-the-stops fancy restaurant; and The Scran & Scallie, modestly described as a public house with dining, run in partnership with, among others, Dominic Jack, chef-patron of The Kitchin's sister restaurant Castle Terrace, also in Edinburgh.
The menus of both restaurants draw principally on Scottish - or at moments of dire need English and Welsh - produce in line with Mr. Kitchin's catchphrase, From Nature to Plate. But at The Kitchin, there are a few more intellectual and technical links between those two ends of the chain: Dishes can be elaborate, and even the seemingly artless ones (like Rock Pool: a selection of excellent Scottish seafood served in a marvelous deeply flavorful shellfish consommé) are complex in the devising and the cooking. In fact, a single visit to The Kitchin is not enough for a reasoned assessment. I'll just say that if you're in Edinburgh and want an interesting, gently challenging, substantial, mostly delicious and rather costly meal, you should make a reservation here - which will take some foresight, as tables are booked long in advance.
No pussy-footing, however, about The Scran & Scallie ("scran" ≈ grub; "scallie" ≈ scallywag), which has been open just since Easter. "Gastro-pub" is not my favorite term, but this place just about falls into that category. It is the best of the kind I've tried, and one of the nicest to sit down for a meal in. The entrance, on a street charmingly named Comely Bank Road, takes you into the bar room, set up with dining tables and higher bar-stool tables for drinking and snacking. The adjacent dining room is simply but carefully furnished and decorated, employing bare brick but also big-patterned wallpaper that our architect friend recognized as a design by the Scottish firm Timorous Beasties. On a bright evening in June (when the sun didn't set till after bedtime) the room was light and cheerful; on a dark, gray winter's night - not an uncommon state of affairs in Edinburgh - it will at least remain cheerful thanks in good part to the staff: it was a pleasure to see how amiably and enthusiastically they engaged with customers.
The quality of the products was remarkable. A couple of times during this trip, we'd eaten big green asparagus from the Wye Valley straddling the English-Welsh border, but The Scran's had the most flavor, with that slight bitterness that is too often missing; the spears were not peeled, which made for even more flavor, and the accompanying hollandaise sauce was a model of its kind.
A special that evening was Scottish langoustines with herb-garlic butter. They made a hell of a mess in the eating - such fun to twist the heads off, suck out the sweet juices, then crack the tails open and extract the meat, which was perfectly tender but not mushy (as the tails can be if the cook is inattentive). Using bread to mop up the butter and juices was another sloppy delight.
Chicken liver parfait, served in a little preserving jar, was rich and its seasoning balanced; the side of red cabbage salad (cole slaw-like) was brightened by spears of apple.
Slices of home-brined pork - cured long enough to count as ham - were served warm (with a semi-hard-cooked egg) topped with a gentle herb emulsion and draped over a spring vegetable mixture that evoked the green bean, potato and pesto dishes of the Italian Riviera, but with more variety and zippier flavors: this was a knockout. Calf's liver was perfectly seared, perfectly pink and (I never take this for granted) perfectly free of tough membranes and veins. Shallot marmalade replaced the more typical onions, to fine effect: it was rather like a chutney and provided a good but not intrusive contrast with the meat.
We were too full to order a dessert apiece, so we shared a glass dish of rhubarb and orange fool: a thick, properly tart rhubarb compote topped with light citrus cream.
"Simple" pub grub in a place run by chefs with grand ideas and sophisticated technique (here, I include David Umpherson, head chef of The Scran & Scallie) is never really and truly simple. The art lies in presenting something delicious and amazing while concealing the hard work and precision cooking that get it onto the plate. The Scran & Scallie does this with elegance and a smile.
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The Kitchin. 78 Commercial Street, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6LX, Scotland; +44 (0)131 555 1755; www.thekitchin.com. Dinner for two, about £220 ($330) including a nice bottle of wine but not service.
The Scran & Scallie. 1 Comely Bank Road, Stockbridge, Edinburgh EH41DT, Scotland; +44 (0)131 332 6281; www.scranandscallie.com. Dinner for two, about £90 ($135) including a nice bottle of wine but not service.