UNTIL last week, if I was playing a word-association game and had been asked to describe Paul Kitching’s peculiarly named Edinburgh restaurant, I’d have given obvious options like “Michelin-starred” or “genius” a sideswerve and plumped instead for the ingredient that dominates my memories of my last visit to 21212: which is “foam”.
3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh
Three courses £48
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our years ago, when he’d just forsaken his Michelin star after he transplanted the Juniper experience wholesale from Manchester to Edinburgh, there was tons of the stuff lathering virtually every dish. It was retro and of the moment, but while the food was technically superb it smacked a little bit of trying a wee bit too hard.
Still, even then there was – and still is – so much to like about the set-up at 21212. The grand old Georgian townhouse on Royal Terrace stares down over the New Town and across the Forth to Fife, while inside the decor is as chic and shiny as on the day it opened in 2009, when it looked contemporary but timeless, flamboyant but not kitsch. But then Kitching and his partner, Fochabers’ finest Katie O’Brien, who runs the front of house, spent £4.5 million doing the place up so it’s probably part of the plan that it still looks pin-sharp.
But if the environment hasn’t changed over the past four years, the same cannot be said of the food. Gastronomic physiognomy is an inexact art, but the tousle-haired Kitching looks like a hippie libero, an impression reflected in his creations, with his eclectic playfulness encompassing everything from using Horlicks and Weetabix as ingredients to once serving purée on a toothbrush next to a minty mouthwash. A restless, inquisitive soul who alighted on molecular gastronomy while a teenage Heston Blumenthal was still roaring around Marlow in his souped-up Ford Capri, Kitching has experimentation in his culinary DNA.
But where the foamy flourish dominated in his early days in Edinburgh, such frippery has given way to a more rounded yet somehow even more theatrical approach. There’s no overt gimmickry, but from beginning to end Kitching’s current offering is a breathless extravaganza of conflicting tastes and textures that buffets your palate and teases the senses. Little is as it seems as the mad alchemist in the kitchen weaves culinary spells, mixing a dizzying array of apparently conflicting ingredients to produce a visually stunning and implausibly perfect end product.
It’s been some time since I was as challenged yet inspired by a meal as I was at 21212. Even at the posher end of the market there’s a tendency to play safe with the usual ingredients, but Kitching seems to delight in varying from the norm because, with the exception of some gorgeously soft cheese and onion topped bread and enormous olives delivered at the outset, nothing in this meal resembles anything that I’ve found anywhere else in Scotland, or outside of it for that matter. That uniqueness and studied disregard for convention, allied to the skill to pull it off, is a rare thing and one to be treasured.
From the moment that we arrived it was clear that 21212 has evolved and that Kitching is happier in his skin than ever. For a start the straitjacket of the format of two starters, soup, two main courses, cheese and two puddings has given way to a more sensible 31313 format so that both the starters and main courses can encompass a vegetarian, meat and seafood option.
This time there was no foam, just a staggering number of ingredients shoehorned into each dish. Our amuse bouche, for instance, was described as a vegetable trifle and consisted of a layer of garden pea and fresh mint purée, a layer of yoghurt, a layer of sweetcorn, peas, onions, cucumber, gherkin and chives, a layer of homemade tomato juice, a layer of warm toasted butter sauce and finally topped with a mushroom parchment that was so bursting with intense flavour that it made my cheekbones burn. Over the top? Certainly. Unforgettable? Without a doubt.
From there we were set up for a meal that grabbed our attention and never let it waver. Shona’s starter of seabass with spicy prawns, fresh peas, brown crab purée and Jerusalem artichokes was a radical fusion of tiny quantities of each ingredient but worked wonderfully. My cheesy lentil risotto, which included creamed lentils, pine nuts, beetroot, potato, courgettes, ham, gammon and mackerel mayonnaise in small measures was an equally flawless mélange of flavours, each easily identifiable yet none clashing.
That was to be the theme for the evening. Our soup comprised a vegetable base and mushroom top, with celeriac, sweet potato and aubergine in the middle, topped with a red cabbage parchment (parchment presumably being today’s foam, only less intrusive) and was impossible to find fault with. So, too, our main courses: Shona’s beef fillet with mustard, olives, brown rice, cabbage, corned beef purée (seriously!) and peas defied all her expectations, while my trout and smoked haddock ratatouille, which featured basil, tomato, mortadella, horseradish and anchovies, left me momentarily speechless with joy.
Our cheese course featured small taster portions of chaources, blue d’Auvergne, reblochon, clava brie, Mont Briac, Admiral Collingwood, morbier, Sainte Maure de Touraine, montenebro, livarot and ticklemore, with the complex briny langres and the strident Harbourne Blue from Devon proving the best of an outstanding bunch. If I was looking to find fault, I’d mention the lack of home-made oatcakes or the deep-fried pear which accompanied the cheese and which was the only thing in our whole meal which didn’t work, but when confronted with a meal of such quality that would be churlish indeed.
As for pudding, Shona rounded off with custard crème brûlée with confit of apricots, cinnamon, sultanas, kiwi chunks and red grape juice, while I had the sharp as a razor glazed lemon curd tart that Kitching has been producing for the past 20 years, even if, true to form, he had to reinvent this particular wheel too, adding honeydew melon milk for good measure.
So, what to make of it all? Flawless is the most important conclusion, although words like challenging, enjoyable and memorable also deserve an outing. So, too, does value, because with three courses starting at £48 and a bottle of wine starting at £20, this is about as accessible as city centre Michelin-starred food ever gets. Without doubt my meal of the year.
• 21212, 3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh EH7 5AB, (0131 523 1030, www.21212restaurant.co.uk)