PEOPLE had spoken to me in hushed tones about Edenwater House for years, but despite trying to book a table on at least a dozen occasions, there had never been any room at the inn. With each rejection I became more determined until, finally, unexpectedly, we managed to get a booking at short notice on a gloriously sunny Wednesday evening.
£40 for a four-course set menu
The drive from Edinburgh to the village of Ednam is a beautiful one, especially if you have time to hit the back roads and wend your way through some of the most picturesque countryside in Scotland. You eventually hit Kelso (to my mind, along with Melrose, the prettiest of the Borders towns) and ten minutes later you’re in the small village of Ednam. But, it took us another ten minutes of searching to find Edenwater House – a feat we only managed by mentally following the course of the river Eden, a tributary of the Tweed and presumably the inspiration for the house’s name, until we came to the church and found the old manse.
There were, however, no signs to say that we’d arrived at our destination and for a moment we thought we were still lost. We were about to turn around and leave, and it was only when we saw a dapper but supremely relaxed sixtysomething gentleman waving at us from the porch of this large Georgian house that we realised we were in the right place. Even on closer inspection there were very few signs that we were at a hotel, other than a few stickers from various top-end hospitality organisations.
Still, co-owner Jeff Kelly, who runs the front of house, was extremely welcoming, taking us through and installing us at a table in the window of the drawing room for a pre-dinner aperitif. As with the rest of the place, there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that it caters for people on a commercial basis, and even the other guests – three cheery retired couples up from Northumbria to fish on the Tweed – acted more as if they were at a weekend house party rather than a hotel.
The dining room was much the same as the drawing room, as comfortable and understated as you can get in a Georgian manse; there was none of that self-important and intimidatingly grand aura that radiates off some country hotels. Again, we had a table in the window and looked out on to a lovely meadow garden that leads down to the Eden, with rolling fields and woods forming a bucolic backdrop that could have come straight out of the Cotswolds.
Our host, born-and-bred Borderer Jeff, was once a management consultant with a multinational firm, and it’s clear that he loves the chance to chat. Urbane and well-informed, particularly about wine, he is a round peg in a round hole – a retired man who is one half of a couple who run Edenwater House as a lifestyle business, opening just three days a week and closing as soon as the fishing on the Tweed stops in November, only opening the doors again in spring.
We now realised why it had proved so difficult to get a booking: on the rare occasions when there are no staying guests (and most of the time the Kellys cater for fishing parties, which often take up the whole place) they sometimes just decide to close.
The other half of the partnership is Jeff’s wife Jacqui, a well-known chef who for many years ran Kelly’s in West Richmond Street in Edinburgh; only shutting up shop 14 years ago when Jeff retired and they went looking for a less stressful existence. They’ve certainly found it at Edenwater, where Jacqui produces a four-course set meal (there’s no menu because guests have no choice) that is served at 8pm, using exactly the same format that has sustained that great northern gastronomic redoubt, the Summer Isles Hotel, for years.
Personally I love being told what I’m going to eat, and given the Kellys’ phenomenal customer loyalty, it appears that I’m not alone. But then such a policy depends entirely upon the quality of the cooking, and Jacqui Kelly is remembered by venerable Edinburgh foodies as a fantastic chef who produces classic French-inspired haute cuisine. This, we found out as soon as our first course arrived, is a reputation that is well deserved. Our rustic starter was a carrot, ginger and honey soup that Bea wistfully described as “the sort of soup I’ve been trying – and failing – to make all of my life”. Enough said.
The fish course was classic Escoffier: rolled sole filled with a prawn mousseline, and served with prawns, a beurre blanc sauce, and a cucumber, caper and sweetcorn salsa. This was a real change of pace, but again it was absolutely flawless in both conception and execution, and was helped by Jeff’s matching of relatively obscure but well-pitched wines.
By now we were seriously impressed. The main course was a fillet of local beef served with kale studded with celery and spring onion, roasted beetroot, puréed swede, pommes Anna, a red onion chutney and Madeira sauce. Yet again, the signs that Kelly knows her business were everywhere, from the thick yet sumptuously tender slabs of beef to the gloriously subtle undercurrent of Madeira in the sauce. Damn it was good.
There was nothing subtle about the alcohol content of the pudding though – in fact, the gingerbread had been so thoroughly soaked in calvados that, like the comedy drunks at Christmas Eve Mass, you could smell it at 20 paces. Served with confit apple, thick ice-cream and a caramel sauce, this was small but perfectly formed, the sort of simple but stridently flavoured pudding I would never tire of eating.
After rounding off with coffee and homemade petits fours, we sat back and ruminated on a remarkable evening. Sure, at £120 for a meal that included a couple of glasses of wine each, it’s certainly not cheap; the no-choice format isn’t for everyone; it is the sort of old-school country house dining that won’t appeal to younger city slickers; and getting a table is on a par with tunnelling into Fort Knox. But boy was it worth the wait.
Ednam, Kelso, Borders TD5 7QL
(01573 224070, www.edenwaterhouse.co.uk)