Whisper it – there’s a secret code for exciting food in Edinburgh. And it goes: 2-1-2-1-2. And no, it’s not the security code for the back door of that takeaway on St Andrew’s Square. It’s the name of Paul Kitching’s Michelin-starred restaurant on Royal Terrace, perched on the approach to Calton Hill.
Kitching and his partner, Katie O’Brien, opened 21212 in May 2009, picking up their Michelin star the following year and scooping the additional accolade of four rosettes from the AA in 2011. High praise indeed, but in a town that boasts three other chefs with Michelin stars – Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart with their eponymous eateries alongside executive chef Jeff Bland at Number One at the Balmoral – Edinburgh’s cooks need to have another trick up their sleeves.
What sets 21212 apart is that it’s a ‘restaurant with rooms’, that classic designation for dining rooms that aren’t quite hotels but can still put their guests up for the night. And there are four of those rooms to be precise.
Located in a Grade-A listed Georgian townhouse, 21212 is spread over four levels, with the dining room on the ground floor and the bedrooms spread out over the storeys above. The main restaurant can seat 38 people, with space for more in two private dining rooms.
There’s something magical about watching chefs at work – a flick of the wrist to toss ingredients in a frying pan, a swirl of a spoon to mix together a sauce, or a roll of a knife to separate vegetables from their stems. The glass partition that separates the diners from the chefs at 21212 allows customers to feel like they’re part of the action.
Seeing Kitching and his team at work was like watching a surgeon performing in an operating theatre. Once an order was read out, his brigade of chefs would turn from their stations around the edge of the kitchen to gather at the workspace in the centre of the room, easing their saucepans on and off the hot plate and assembling their dishes ready for the pass.
At one stage I counted ten bodies at work in the throng. Perhaps Kitching is more like a conductor leading an orchestra than a surgeon in an operating theatre?
Either way, the food that passed through the glass partition and into the dining room was exciting. My hostess for the evening explained that Kitching creates his dishes by drawing pictures instead of writing lists of ingredients and that raw creativity shines through in the presentation of his plates.
His amuse-bouche for the evening consisted of a tomato and garlic gazpacho soup with puy lentils and couscous, served over a sweetcorn puree and finished with a horseradish foam and a wholegrain mustard crisp. Aside from the intriguing nature of the foam and crisp projecting from the top of the tiny mug, what struck me about the dish was the intensity of the flavours – the wholegrain mustard shard was tremendous. That intensity of flavour continued through the rest of the five-course meal.
For my starter, I opted for ‘autumn duck ragout’, which consisted of slices of duck breast served with exotic mushrooms, cashews, sultanas and mozzarella cheese, alongside a bonbon of leg meat. The flavours were delicious, but it was the mixture of textures – dried mushroom, pan-fried mushroom, mushroom gel – that brought the dish alive for me. Soft duck, crunchy nuts, and a crisp bonbon caught my attention.
A mushroom soup was accompanied with a foam and a medley of fresh vegetables, served in a wide and low bowl, again presenting a mixture of textures. The bread for the evening was white and contained goji berries, adding a sweetness to the soft crumb.
Kitching’s descriptions of his dishes don’t give much away – the menu consists of a title for each plate, followed by three lines of ingredients. So ‘Corned (beef fillet) pie’ aroused my curiosity. Tender fillet steak, a slither of puff pastry and a chunk of oily chorizo. Warm rather than hot, but still ticking all the right boxes.
To finish, I picked ‘A pear of strawberries’, which materialised as a moreish fruit trifle accompanied by a wedge of flaky shortbread. Heaven.
As a drinks writer, I get stupidly excited by the sight of a wine list and so I was in my element when I spotted that the bin numbers on 21212’s drinks menu were spiralling up towards 1,000. With duck, beef and mushrooms all jostling for my attention, I plumped for number 600, an old reliable option – pinot noir.
August Kesseler’s ‘N’ Pinot Noir from the Rheingau region of Germany went down a treat. At £56 a bottle, it’s not cheap, but it lived up to expectations, combining concentrated strawberry and cranberry red berry fruit flavours, with wood smoke aromas and enough fresh acidity to cut through the sauces.
Diners are given a choice between three dishes for their starter, main course and pudding, with a set soup course and cheese also available. One dish on each of the three parts of the menu changes each week, producing a whole new line-up every 21 days.
And so to bed. Each of the four rooms is individually decorated. My chamber consisted of a massive super king-sized bed and a crazily-comfortable sofa. The bathroom contained not only his-and-her’s sinks but also a standalone shower that was easily big enough for three people and probably the largest freestanding egg-shaped bath that I’ve ever seen.
Two small gripes. It’s a long way up the stairs without a lift – though that’s a harsh criticism given that it’s a Grade-A listed building. Despite the modern interior, there was a very old-fashion sounding monster in the waterpipes when the central heating fired up in the early hours. But the rude awakening did have a silver lining – it meant I was raring to go by the time breakfast was served.
The texture-fest of the night before continued with a the most amazing homemade muesli, while diners were also treated to a choice of three hot dishes to follow.