Secret Edinburgh restaurant launches surprise tasting experience

Condita owner Mark Slaney and Head Chef Conor Toomey'''Pic: Neil Hanna
Condita owner Mark Slaney and Head Chef Conor Toomey'''Pic: Neil Hanna
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NESTLED between a hairdressers and a Post Office, from the other side of the street No 15 Salisbury Place is just another anonymous shop front.

There is no sign outside to reveal that within is the Capital’s newest dining experience. Even the one word hand-painted above the door, Condita, gives little away.

Condita teaser 'bookmark' menu ''Pic: Neil Hanna

Condita teaser 'bookmark' menu ''Pic: Neil Hanna

Inside, the mystery continues. There is no menu as such, no fussing over what to have, just a hand-drawn “bookmark” of clues as to the ingredients about to be served in the surprise tasting menus on offer – a choice of five or eight courses is available.

With just six tables, wonderfully refurbished 1960s affairs, it is safe to say Condita offers a low profile and intimate dining experience. Something of which owner Mark Slaney is rather proud.

He explains, “My background is fine dining and most fine dining restaurants around the world have people come to them because of their reputation. They rely on diners coming to them for a specific experience rather than on passing trade.

“If we advertised we were a restaurant outside, people could walk in thinking we were a conventional restaurant only to find that, because we are a little bit different, we don’t meet their expectations.

Condita's walled garden

Condita's walled garden

“We wanted to avoid that and made the decision not to have the word ‘restaurant’ outside the front door, so the people who do come here already know what we do.”

What Condita does do well is serve exquisite ‘tastes’.

Explaining the concept, Mark says, “What you eat when you come here is a fait accompli, like when you go to a friend’s house for a dinner party; there isn’t a choice of food, you just trust your friend and off you go.

“As someone who has been doing this all his life, our Head Chef Conor Toomey, working with what is freshest and seasonal, is the best person to make the judgement call on what to cook and how to cook it.

“And as new things come in and seasonal items drop off the agenda, so the menu will evolve.”

As we talk, Conor treats us to some of his culinary delights. So far they have included Tatare of Scottish salmon with pickled fennel and keta served on a wooden spoon and Shetland mussel poached in dashi with seaweed and an edible shell, coloured with squid ink.

Still to come is the smoked eel stuffed chicken wing cooked on a barbecue, a haggis and apple bon bon and baked celeriac, remoulade with roast celeriac cream.

Oh, and not forgetting the aged loin of middle white pork, with chicory, beetroot puree and black pudding puree.

Vegetarians too are catered for, adds Mark.

“We are very lucky to have access to a walled garden which doesn’t use any pesticides so vegetarian dishes are really easy for us to do, as long as we have enough notice,” says Mark.

“We also do a lot of fish as well so again, given time to prepare, we can potentially do a menu for somebody who doesn’t want red meat as well.”

The menu changes on a rolling basis, already two or three courses that were introduced when the restaurant opened in November have been replaced.

By spring, a completely different selection will be being served.

The son of Bournemouth hoteliers, 54-year-old Mark came to Scotland many years ago.

“My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were hoteliers,” he reveals, “and I just got immersed in that world from an early age, learning how to cook and getting involved in drinking fine wine. I never looked back.

“When my parents decided they wanted a quieter lifestyle, they shut the restaurant for a week or two and we did a road trip around the British Isles.

“We fell in love with the Scottish Borders and they sold up, bought a house there and turned it into a hotel.”

Mark went on to work as a Sommelier and commercial wine buyer as well as trying his hand as a novelist, writing the crime thriller The Dragunov Deception under the pen name Mark Macduff.

He has also published Tasting Notes, a paperback looking back at his 30 years of commercial wine buying.

Condita, he reflects, was born out of a shared love of good food with his partner Rachel.

“Rachel and I like eating out and our holidays are totally food focussed – before we go away we are already compiling a list of places to eat from The Michelin Guide.

“We soaked up a lot of ideas doing this and decided it would be really nice to have a little restaurant of our own.”

Condita opened last November and if Mark is the Maitre d’ ensuring the smooth running of front of house, Conor, his South African Head Chef is the master of the kitchen.

He’s aided by Spyros Katridis (who does a “to die for” sourdough bread with whipped goats butter) as he prepares an amazing array of flavours and textures to tantalise the taste buds.

“We needed a head chef and spent a year looking for the right person,” reveals Mark.

“I interviewed him and then he came to our house and I cooked him a meal and we chatted.

“As soon as we waved goodbye and shut the door, Rachel and I looked at each other and said, ‘He’s the guy for us’.”

The team is completed by servers Marisol Ruiz and Angus Clelland. “Between us, we do everything. We do the washing up together, take turns to get the toilets cleaned, to take in deliveries and to clean the windows. Everybody has bought into it quite strongly and connect. They are a great outfit and all go the extra mile.”

The sixth member of the team, every bit as vital to the overall experience despite her absence, is Rachel and she has the final say on all aspects of the restaurant’s design, from the retro food magazine pages that paper the toilets, to the seasonal decor of the dining room and those “bookmarks”, drawing and dating each on the day it is required.

“Rachel has already started to make nests with eggs and gather moss and things for the spring decor,” says Mark, reflecting, “The beauty of our tasting menu is that it allows us to present a wider array of flavours and combinations.

“From the palette point of view it is like a piece of music that starts off at one speed, then builds up, rests, and then charges towards its climax.”

Condita can be found at 15 Salisbury Place, bookings can be made at enquiries@condita.co.uk or visit www.condita.co.uk for more details