MY MISSION was to find a venue for a Valentine’s Day dinner, but where to go?
The Witchery by the Castle
Main courses £17-£60 Puddings £2-£11.50(cheeseboard £13.50)
Star rating: ********
I asked around among my more hedonistic acquaintances who thought it was a no-brainer: the Witchery. Named for the hundreds of women burnt just outside on Castlehill, the Witchery is an authentic slice of history, from the 17th century oak panels, to the tapestries on the walls, the exposed beams and studded red leather upholstery. Think Jacobean tavern, magical, baroque, gothic, theatrical. A Hallmark card is sweet, but the Witchery has hallmarked romance and a sense of theatre.
For 30 years James Thomson’s The Witchery by the Castle has been attracting discerning diners from near and far. Celebs who have been bewitched include Vivienne Westwood, Miranda Richardson, Bernardo Bertolucci, Alan Parker, Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jacques Villeneuve, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Dannii Minogue, Matt Groening and Cameron Mackintosh. Presumably not all on the same night or it would be a tight squeeze.
Space is at a premium (although there’s the Secret Garden courtyard too) but that only makes for intimacy, which is what you want when romance is in the air. Small tables encourage hand-holding and murmuring with heads close to candles flickering in antique church candlesticks. Perfect, as long as your hair extensions don’t catch fire.
Prompt service saw our starters arrive in no time. King scallops, hand-dived off Mull that morning, were joined by Iberico bacon dice, all swimming in garlic butter, which the home-made bread was perfect for mopping up. Someone who likes his scallops soft, my partner found them slightly overdone, but I found them perfect.
My own starter of beetroot, crowdie, and cauliflower purée turned out to be my favourite part of the meal, thanks to its imaginative combination of flavours and textures. Red and golden beets arranged in a swirl in the centre of the plate were surrounded by dots of subtly flavoured loveliness. There were mini islands of subtle smoked cauliflower purée and Katie Rodger’s dreamily creamy crowdie (which you’ll also find at Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Martin Wishart and the Three Chimneys in Skye), topped off with roasted hazelnuts. These beets had clearly never languished inside a jar of vinegar and were earthy, rootsy and delicate. Like me, beetroot really should get out more often.
I opted for salmon, plucked from the cold, clear waters of Loch Duart and smoked on the premises. This was a statement dish packed with flavour and served with buttered Alexander stems, oyster hollandaise and sweet potato chips. As the salmon battled it out with the smoky flavour, I spared a thought for the smoky end endured by the poor witches just a few steps away. Meanwhile, my partner loved his roast line-caught Cornish wild bass but the pot au feu of oxtail and vegetables on which it reclined saw him perplexed. For him, fish and beef together was not a marriage made in food heaven, and it was all about that bass.
Meanwhile I’d fallen in love. With my mashed potato. Served in the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of tiny copper pans (a rustic cutie), my maris pipers with peas and bacon were a soothing counterbalance to the smoky salmon, while grilled mushrooms added an unexpected flash of flavour.
Being ignorant about wine we went with the friendly sommelier’s recommendations from a vast list. A glass of crisp Loire sauvignon blanc suited the sea bass main and a South African chenin blanc was robust enough to match the salmon.
Pudding was unnecessary but sweet nothings require sweet somethings so the waiter suggested The Witchery Pudding Selection. A slate filled with a taster portion of each of the puddings on the menu, it featured dark Belgian chocolate tart, vanilla crème brulée, chocolate gateau, mini trifle, pistachio cream (the best thing on the slate), griottine cherry and ice-cream. These sweet touches must have worked their magic, as our waiter apologised for “interrupting the romance” as he approached to remove our plates.
As the candlelight flickered and reflected off the silver pots of tea that rounded off the meal, we realised everyone else had sloped off unnoticed into the night. We were the last to leave. The Witchery had us under its spell.
And then the bill, the only downside to this meal. The Witchery is dear, but top notch local ingredients don’t come cheap so it’s a knock-your-loved-one’s-socks-off type of place. Your bank manager might not love you, but your dining companion will.
ALSO ON THE MENU
THE Witchery makes much of its local suppliers and growers, as fishermen, farmers, cheesemakers, butchers and gamekeepers from across Scotland and the North of England make it onto the menu.
If it hadn’t been such a cold night, the heritage tomato tart, mascarpone custard, tomato jelly and tomato salad (£17) would have been top of my list. If lobster’s your thing, why not go for the Scottish seafood platter with its oysters, langoustines, clams, mussels, crab and hot-smoked salmon served on ice with lime mayonnaise, Tabasco and fresh lemon, with half lobster (£45), or whole (£60)?
If you’re in the mood for sharing, Lamb Wellington for two (£60) includes a pastry-baked lamb loin stuffed with wild mushroom and chicken mousse, wrapped in serrano ham, served with smoked aubergine purée, spring greens and basil mash.
The Witchery also has a Lunch and Theatre Supper Menu and a Witchery Table d’Hôte Menu, both of which have a choice of three options per course.
There are numerous vegetarian options and an Allergens Menu for those with special dietary requirements.
The Witchery by the Castle
Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2NF (0131-225 5613, www.thewitchery.com)