If you are going to go to a restaurant where there are bench tables and all the diners sit cheek by jowl, it’s always best to take some softly spoken soul whose chat won’t draw the attention of fellow diners.
Instead, I chose Rachel. She is many things – great fun, good repartee – but quiet and discreet don’t come into the equation. As for me, I’ve listened to my iPod just a bit too often and am a little deaf in one ear – my children tell me I shout when I talk, but what would they know?
It was an hour into a meal in the company of strangers when it became obvious that the couple to my right had completely abandoned any pretence of talking to each other (or maybe this is just the way they are) and were either appalled at our gossiping and clyping, or we had simply bored them to tears. Either way, they had been completely silent for a big chunk of the evening.
On the other side, however, a cheery young pair – he had an entertainingly inept home-made mohican and was the lead singer in a band, she was a rather look-into-my-eyes intense Bahraini émigré – engaged us in chat through the generously novel gambit of filling up Rachel’s wine glass as soon as she drained it.
There is so much that is deeply, and engagingly quirky about the Gardener’s Cottage, from the teak tables and lamps made from bits of the recently scrapped liner SS Olympia and the rescued church chairs to the fact that you sit on bench tables in two tiny rooms, forced to acknowledge those around you in a way that is entirely alien to the usual dining experience.
Even the story of how the place came into existence is unusually memorable. The small, single-storey cottage was designed by William Playfair and was originally the home for the man charged with tending the formal gardens that accompany the big houses on Royal Terrace (the gardens were originally laid out to include a path for the exiled king of France, Charles X, to walk on his way from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to church). However, the cottage fell into disrepair and became virtually derelict five years ago.
Since it is listed to the roof and therefore happily undemolishable, last year the council invited proposals on what to do with it. Local residents favoured a tearoom, but the beauty parade was won by two young chefs, Dale Mailley and Ed Murray, who met while working at the Atrium but who have also paid their dues at a clutch of Edinburgh institutions – such as the Outsider, Blue, Café St Honoré and the Kitchin, not to mention the two-Michelin-starred Ledbury, in London.
This was in part because Murray had trained as an architect, and it shows because the pair have done a great job, stripping the place right back and producing a clean, sparse shell with two rooms that provide enough authentic character to have satisfied Playfair himself. They have also turned the front garden into a vegetable plot and employed a gardener.
Nor do the idiosyncrasies end with the seating arrangements and the fact that there are radishes sprouting just outside the front door. The menu, for instance, is a five-course set affair, with the only deviation coming if you’re a vegetarian or allergic to any particular ingredients. As I eat pretty much anything but olives and tripe, and love restaurants where you don’t get a choice, we were set fine for the night.
Things started well with beautifully light bread, made on the premises and served with seaweed butter, which perhaps isn’t that surprising as Ed’s most recent role was as head chef at the award-winning Bruntsfield bakery Falko Konditormeister. But from there on we got a beautifully balanced meal that was so enjoyable and such good value that it was difficult to believe it only cost £25 for all five courses.
Our starter was described as a fennel cracker, but it was more like a cross between a chapati and a thin, vegetable-themed dropped scone. This was served with a generous helping of a broad bean, pea and mint pâté on one side and a dollop of cream cheese crowdie on the other, the whole effect being to conjure up a cacophony of flavours – from the freshness of the mint and peas to the slightly sour notes of the crowdie – and of different textures – from the cloying cream cheese to the moist cracker.
We had started well, and the momentum was maintained with a hand-dived scallop on a bed of shredded ham hock and herb salsa. This was followed by the main event: half a dozen slices of roe deer fillet, served with asparagus, broad beans, potatoes, chanterelles and capers and garnished with fat hen, a herb foraged that morning in Perthshire. I love roe deer venison, and this dish was superb, with the luscious crimson medallions of meat so tender I could cut them with a fork, while the asparagus and broad beans still in their pods were faultlessly al dente. It wasn’t showy and won’t win any awards, but it was perfect.
Our meal began to draw to a close with a home-made oatcake and a small helping of a beautiful Morangie sheep’s brie, which I could smell long before it reached my plate. We rounded off with a pudding of hazelnut meringue, elderflower cream and a smattering of blueberries, which Rachel loved but which wasn’t the sort of thing I’d normally order. Still, it was produced with a verve and confidence that was immediately apparent.
And with that, we were done. This was a perfectly balanced meal that left us feeling sated but not unpleasantly so, which was healthy but not spartan. It wasn’t even the sort of food that usually pushes my buttons, but it was produced with such care and thought that it was impossible not to be deeply impressed, – and that was without even thinking about the price or the surroundings.
I normally allow at least a month of settling in time before I try a new restaurant, so the chefs can bed in and hit their stride, but on this occasion I visited in the first week. If this is what they’re doing from a standing start, I can’t wait to see what the place is like in six months’ time.