The Dining Room Scotch Malt Whisky Society, 28 Queen Street, Edinburgh (0131-220 2044, www.thediningroomedinburgh.co.uk)
Menu du jour (lunch and pre-theatre) £18.50 (two courses); £22.95 (three courses)
A la carte starters £ 7.50-£13.50
Main courses £16.95-£22.95
Puddings £6.75-7.50 Cheese £9.50
Rating 8 out of 10
By now, you would have thought the pattern would be impossible to overlook, yet on my latest visit I was gobsmacked once again at the sheer quality of chef James Freeman’s food at this most idiosyncratic and welcoming of private members’ clubs.
Open to all, but desperately under-used, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s headquarters on Queen Street remain one of the capital’s most valuable but curiously unfeted institutions. Whether it’s the fantastic and surprisingly contemporary bar upstairs, with its wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling collection of malts, or the circular dining room on the ground floor of this statuesque Georgian town house, there is so much to applaud about the place that your hands would be numb long before you had done it justice.
We are all prisoners of our preconceptions, and perhaps it’s the lingering perception of whisky folk as rather fusty, mustachioed dinosaurs in tweed jackets smelling faintly of mothballs that evidently makes many dismiss the idea of eating here on the rare occasions when the thought may spring to mind. If so, they’re the losers because this remarkable building, which welcomes all-comers as well as society members, is one of the city’s great hidden gems.
Chief among its virtues is Freeman, the self-taught cook who has been its head chef since the place opened in 2005. He jacked in a law degree to travel Europe in search of culinary enlightenment, and the result is a chef who synthesises a diverse range of influences – primarily French – with the skilled touch of a distillery’s master blender. Against all uninformed expectations, his food is neither whisky-soaked or embarrassingly tartanised; instead, it’s supremely cultured, confident and understated.
Take my recent lunchtime visit, when Michael started with fresh white crab with vanilla, green apple and smoked mackerel, while I opted for slow-cooked daube of beef with kohlrabi marinated in horseradish and garlic chips. Two diverse dishes connected only by being flawlessly conceived and executed, these were so remarkably good that enthusiastic chatter momentarily gave way to complete silence.
Michael’s crab dish was just as he’d hoped it would be: light and refreshing, it was the perfect accompaniment to a rare outbreak of sunshine, which flooded in through the windows from Queen Street. My daube of beef was on the small side but made up for that by being slice-with-a-spoon tender, yet arriving with a rich, heavy sauce of such intensity that I ate slowly and deliberately so I could savour each delicious mouthful.
The lack of the increasingly prevalent prissy, self-satisfied food-as-art presentation was also a minor victory of sorts. Freeman doesn’t just chuck it all on the plate, preferring to deliver it in a self-consciously prosaic manner which emphasises that it’s the content, not the form, that is king. And if our meal started well, mostly it continued in similarly impressive fashion.
I had thought long and hard about ordering a main course of roquefort soufflé with walnuts, beetroot and quince but instead plumped for the Gressingham duck breast accompanied by liquorice jus and burnt orange compote. My fishy friend Michael chose the crispy fillet of plaice with Wye Valley asparagus (what a pity Sandy Patullo’s peerless Glamis asparagus only became available the following week), peas and curried velouté.
If Michael’s plaice was as perfectly produced and as flawless as his starter, my duck breast wasn’t as tender or as oozing with flavour as I had hoped, yet the impact of the sour liquorice and the invigorating burnt orange made for a layered accompaniment that turned the whole ensemble into a memorable dish. On balance, these were two main courses we would both have been happy to order again.
The same was definitely true of my unfeasibly light yet intense mountain of chocolate mousse, which came with a gloriously creamy dollop of rum caramel ice-cream. Michael’s cheese, which attracted a hefty £4 surcharge, was great as far as it went, but we were surprised and disappointed to see only two Scottish cheeses – Strathdon Blue and Isle of Mull cheddar – to go along with a trio of overseas cheeses in the French St Maure de Touraine and Brie de Meaux, and the Irish goat’s cheese Adrahan. Freeman has made a point of sourcing the best ingredients, but there are plenty of exceptional artisan cheeses produced in Scotland that would be worthy of such a cheeseboard.
That said, my mutterings about the cheese were a minor quibble in a meal that consistently delivered far more than it promised. If there was a downside – and there always is – it came not in the form of the fairly hefty bill but in the person of a lackadaisical waitress who seemed to rather disinterested in her job, worked at a glacial pace and managed to give us each other’s starters and main courses without even stopping to check.
Still, the sheer quality of our meal had put me in such a good mood that I couldn’t bring myself to withhold the tip. And talking of tips, here’s one: try the Dining Room, it’s far better than you might expect, no matter how many times you visit.