Brian Monteith: A taste of what makes us great

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I normally write about politics, sometimes economics, occasionally culture. This week I have to write about food, for last Saturday I enjoyed what is possibly the finest meal I’ve ever had – and it was in Edinburgh, Leith, to be exact.

I’ve dined in the finest and most-treasured restaurants in London, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Berlin and Rome and yet it is to a Scottish restaurant that I wish to bestow the “best meal in my life” accolade, and when such world-beating experiences occur locally I believe they should be shouted from the rooftops. So, this week I must write about the politics, economics and culture of food and my experience in The Kitchin.

On arrival, I was soon greeted by mine host and Michelin-starred chef, Tom Kitchin, who took the trouble to speak to as many diners as possible before he retreated backstage. He told me that he had recently been on holiday in Thailand and that he was so impressed with the local south-Asian cooking that he hoped to introduce some of its influences in his menu.

No sooner had I sat down than I was brought an appetiser of carrot and star anise soup that was so subtle and yet complex. This was soon followed by a sample of a new dish of carpaccio of hand-dived Scottish scallops with an infusion of Asian flavours and spices. The depth of tastes was sublime and if my meal had ended there I would have felt satisfied, but I had yet to have the courses I had ordered and my good humour became excitable in anticipation.

I then had razor clams, or spoots, with a vegetable and lemon reduction that was so simple and yet so complex on my palate that I could have had double were it not the starter. This was followed by the finest veal sweetbreads that I have ever tasted. A much misunderstood cut of offal rarely seen but worth every encouragement of trying – they were crispy on the outside but soft inside.

I really thought the dish could not be bettered but I had not bargained for the rhubarb soufflé and the rhubarb ripple ice cream accompaniment. This was the lightest soufflé I have ever had and left me baffled by its consistency and craftsmanship. I noticed nearly everyone was trying it and I almost felt sorry for the other desserts left waiting for partners.

The wines were excellent, but it was the food that remains memorable through its craftsmanship.

I write all of this to express my admiration for the chef and his team, and if it comes over as rather gushing then I humbly apologise for it is not meant that way. I simply want to explain that it is by encouraging more high-quality dining, and other such experiences, that Edinburgh, nay Scotland, will become a far more attractive tourist destination.

True, it was a relatively expensive meal but not embarrassingly so, and certainly would have easily fetched twice the price or more if it was a restaurant in Barcelona or Dubai. Indeed, if Tom Kitchin wanted to make serious money then he would relocate to other such locations, but then he would find it far more difficult to use the Scottish produce that helps make his dishes so enjoyable. He calls it “from nature to plate” and a more apt description I cannot imagine.

It is through the efforts of Tom Kitchin, and others like him, that Scotland is now appearing regularly on the pages of in-flight and coffee table magazines as a destination of choice. People travel the world not just for the weather, the scenery or the history but for the pleasure of eating and drinking the local produce. When it comes to our rich venison, our subtle Arbroath Smokies, the sweetest of lamb and the choicest spring vegetables, Scotland is up there with the best, which is why so much of it goes to restaurants abroad.

It is also through the experimentation of Scottish chefs and their international influences that customers like me are inspired to go and source spoots to try to cook them at home (giving jobs to small towns on our coastline) or buy spices and ingredients at delicatessens (giving trade to developing countries).

This is how the market works, suppliers satisfy customers and money changes hands, making us all wealthier and happier for the experience.

Running a restaurant is a tough business – some of my favourites have closed over the years, some go in and out of fashion – but the beneficial impact of Edinburgh’s fine dining has been political, economic and cultural as it has changed our own behaviour, our attractiveness as a destination and the wealth of the city.

If you doubt this, consider how much it rankles that there is no Michelin star in Glasgow. Not one, when Edinburgh has five.

I shall remember that meal for a very long time to come but I shall look forward to it being bettered, not just by Tom Kitchin himself but by his many skilled competitors.

Only 30 years ago Edinburgh was a gastronomic desert, now it is an oasis, and we should be thankful to all those chefs like Kitchin, past and present, that have put the city on the map.