BLIMEY, where to start when describing Aizle, a restaurant that sets out to be challenging and which succeeds in spades? The easiest bit is the name: it’s an old Scots word meaning hot ember or spark, and it rhymes with hazel.
The CV stuff is pretty straightforward too, with the owners a husband and wife team consisting of a chef and front of house. Stuart Ralston, a much-travelled Scot who worked alongside Gordon Ramsay in New York, does the business in the kitchen and is, I was informed by a former colleague from his days at Greywalls, a chef of enormous passion and invention. The other half of the partnership is Krystal Goff, a mixologist from Seattle who says she “has worked behind the bars of some of the hottest NYC establishments, and brings her eclectic and sometimes unconventional style of mixology with her to Aizle” via the US and Barbados.
As for the venue, the 50-cover Aizle is deep in the heart of Edinburgh’s student land, occupying the site that was until recently the home of much-loved Chinese restaurant Karen Wong’s. That will make it a target of some ire from veteran local foodies of a sentimental bent, although the place has had a good overhaul, which has swept away the kitsch and replaced it with an understated, folksy minimalism.
The genuinely puzzling bit, however, comes in the way Aizle’s owners describe their new restaurant. Apparently it’s a neo-bistro, while their brand of gastronomy is French bistronomie. If this sounds like the worst sort of pretentious tosh, it’s only fair to point out that Aizle and its staff are as down-to-earth and grounded as you could possibly hope for. Apparently, being a neo-bistro, or the home of Scottish bistronomie if you prefer, means not having a menu, but instead giving each diner a list of ingredients that will almost certainly feature in the four-course culinary excursion that is to follow.
The idea is to change the list every day, partly as a demonstration that the only ingredients used are those that are absolutely fresh. Just to add to the mystique, several of the ingredients on the smorgasbord-style menu are sufficiently obscure that many casual diners would have to get busy with their smart phones to have any idea of knowing exactly what they are eating. Our list of ingredients, for instance, included such exotic delights as flowering scurvy grass, sea lettuce, purple sprouting broccoli, pink purslane and gremolata. Another friend who had visited previously had rung me from his table to ask sotto voce whether I knew what togarashi (a peppery Japanese condiment) or chawanmushi (an egg custard dish found in Japan) were.
Once you’ve adapted to the initial shock, there are two basic ways you can respond. The first is to huff and puff; the second is to open your mind, embrace the experience and just try to enjoy the ride.
The latter course, it turned out, was immeasurably easier to follow once a big basket of gorgeous semi-crusty bread arrived along with a small bowl of the cool, fresh Labneh cheese that is made from yoghurt and is a staple of Middle Eastern cooking. Somehow being presented with excellent, still-warm, home-made bread invariably convinces me that the chef will lavish the same attention to detail on the meal I’m about to eat.
We didn’t have long to wait as the courses started to appear in quickfire fashion. First up were a couple of almost blini-style discs topped with Vidalia onion cooked to the consistency of hummus, plus little dollops of mayonnaise and garnished with flowering scurvy grass. As a start, it was an indication that there was some seriously complex culinary alchemy taking place in Ralston’s kitchen, an impression consolidated by our next nibble, Carlingford oysters with a pepper and gazpacho garnish.
Next up was comfortably the best dish so far. Ajoblanco, often called the white gazpacho, is a cold almond soup popular in Spain, and this version had the wonderfully slick texture of a particularly good velouté, but was crammed with competing flavours thanks to the grapes, celery heart, wild garlic, sourdough, and milk and olive oil. Excellent doesn’t come close.
The starters finished with cubes of chicken wing meat accompanied by salt-baked celeriac, pink purslane and slices of pear, a nicely balanced ensemble. Much the same was true of our next course, which consisted of a perfectly-cooked fillet of wild bream served with sea spaghetti, grapes, wild leeks and a few drops of beurre blanc sauce.
The only disappointment came with the main course of subtly flavoured but fatty hogget (a sheep that is over a year old, but not yet mutton), which came with a handful of rock clams, wild leeks, kohlrabi, pumpkin and grain mustard. The meal, however, ended on a high with a stunningly rich chocolate délice which came with some commendably tart lemon curd, an intriguing chicory mousse and home-made hazelnut biscuits. Again, it was a dish worth coming back for.
In fact, the whole magical mystery tour was so overwhelming that I’ll almost certainly return at some stage to try it afresh in the expectation that each visit will yield new and interesting experiences.
Our meal wasn’t perfect – the tables are annoyingly small, and the set price of £35 means a meal for two with wine and service is almost sure to break the £100 mark – but Ralston’s invention, innovation and sheer determination to challenge his diners’ senses, which is reminiscent of 21212’s Paul Kitching, should ensure that a visit to Aizle is a memorable evening out.
107-109 St Leonard’s Street, Edinburgh
EH8 9QY (0131-662 9349, www.aizle.co.uk)
Set menu £35
Rating - 8/10