YEAH, yeah, I know it's unfair. There is, after all, an unspoken convention that a new restaurant gets a bedding-in period of a month before it gets reviewed. But the annoyingly named 21212 gets both barrels on the basis of its first night because, well, it's not really new. Not in any sense we'd understand.
21212, the love child of chef-patron Paul Kitching and his Fochabers-raised partner Katie O'Brien, is basically Kitching's Michelin-starred Manchester restaurant Juniper moved 200 miles to the north. Juniper may have been in an on-street former estate agent, but while the venue has changed the scenario remains the same: Kitching is still producing intricate, arresting food worthy of a star; O'Brien still runs the front of house with a cheery informality that instantly puts you at ease; while in the kitchen the sous chef from Juniper, the furrow-browed Kate Johnston, still works away with a barely restrained sense of purpose.
We know that last bit because the kitchen is behind a big glass panel at the end of the dining room and you can see the cogs in the machine as they turn with a remarkable precision and surprising lack of panic. It's part of a tasteful 4.5 million overhaul of the spectacular Georgian terraced house that has turned what was the No 3 eaterie into one of the country's smartest restaurants with rooms. The place is opulent without being gaudy. In short, it all works.
From the four bedrooms on the upper floors, to the drawing room and private dining on the first floor, Kitching's crew have taken a grand old building and given it a contemporary makeover that doesn't feel gimmicky or contrived. Best of all is the 38-seat dining room, which mixes boudoir-style comfort with belle epoque grandeur.
That said, nobody will be going to 21212 for the dcor; more than any other restaurant, this is about the food. For more than a decade at Juniper, Kitching cultivated an eccentric, experimental culinary persona which drew gushing praise from fellow chefs and critics. Gordon Ramsay has called him "the shining star of the north", while Heston Blumenthal once said after a five-hour lunch of 45 courses featuring a succession of avant garde flights of fancy: "A man made of aubergine. Now who wouldn't be in favour of that?"
Actually, you rather suspect the staid burghers of Edinburgh probably wouldn't, which may be why Kitching has knocked some of the uneven edges off his repertoire. Or perhaps it's just that the requirements of the eponymous set menu format that is the only option for diners – two starter options, one soup, two main course options, one cheese course and two puddings – reduce the scope for experimentation, even if the menu does change every day.
Not that we were complaining. Kitching may be phasing out the in-your-face affronts to culinary sensibilities, but he's a million miles from being po-faced and has evolved so that the invention and innovation quotient remains extraordinarily high despite the straitjacket of the 21212 formula. In fact, if you were looking for a stylistic marker, the best way of describing this is Andrew Fairlie-esque, with a retro penchant for foam.
I started with a chicken BLT with meaux mustard cream, while Bea opted for the warm scallops with seven peas and tomato butter. Mine was a challenge, the chicory adding a subtle sour note to the unfeasibly tender chicken while the gherkin, sweetcorn and tomatoes provided a dizzying range of flavours, all held together by the mustard cream. Bea's scallops were an equally interesting collision of flavours, with occasional glimpses of the strong but sparingly used parille cheese through the pea pure.
The soup of apple and carrot was every bit as thought-provoking, even if the parsimonious portion was arranged in a different format, with layered ingredients hidden underneath a very 1990s head of foam. The tiny chunks of salami and the pine nuts gave the soup real bite, while the cauliflower cream sauce added another texture, the whole ensemble working perfectly together, right down to the vibrant green apple peel.
Both our main dishes were outstanding. Bea's baked turbot with chorizo, dates, vanilla and swede pure was as close to perfect as makes no difference, while my tender beef fillet a la Greque lived up to its billing, the three chunks of beef almost cloyingly soft.
The cheese course was interesting largely for the fact that there were 12 options on show, all of which we polished off. They ranged from favourites, such as the pungent livarot and the spicy fruitiness of the rock-solid tte de moine, to some that were new to me, such as gaperon, a cheese from the Auvergne which is flavoured with pepper and garlic and tastes fantastic.
We rounded off with two deconstructed puddings that had been split down to their constituent parts: me with a baked egg custard with raspberry and banana trifle, while Bea went for a savoury cheesecake replete with the carraway seeds that punctuated our meal and served with a gorgeous ginger and nutmeg sorbet.
What's not to like?
3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh (0131-523 1030, www.21212restaurant.co.uk)
Out of pocket
Set five-course dinner 60