The Gardener’s Cottage greets you with a smile and a porch filled with preserves, potions and tinctures, an apothecary-cum-farmer’s wife’s larder of nature picked at its best, saved for later. You get a sense of the meal to come. Of Scottish sea and soil, with fermenting seaweeds and turnips, bottled sea buckthorn and countless other treats, like someone has picked the brains of every Great British Menu chef (Scotland round) and created an edible library.
The kitchen is Lilliputian, no room to swing a spatula, and thusly dictates the format of the menu; a £40 six-course set dinner, in turn led by the capabilities of the garden, a handful of local suppliers and the contents of the preserving jars by the door. The rhythm of food over the pass is relentless on the (seemingly lone) chef, a clockwork march made necessary by lack of space. By our dessert we know what will be plated next, and it’s impossible not to watch if you score a seat with a view; four hake, two mackerel, six tortellini, four strawberry, two hake, six mackerel.
At lunch, a paired back café-style menu is on offer, and at weekends a sausage-drenched-in-hollandaise-kind-of-hearty brunch. A previous experience at The Gardener’s Cottage was a simple December lunch of soup and quiche; a bowl of pure pumpkin silk and a positively regal combination of cheese, onion, pastry and cream, all washed down with a sea buckthorn soda that fizzed sweetly on the tongue like nature’s riff on Opal Fruits. The Gardener’s Cottage falls squarely into my favourite class of restaurant; that which makes ingredients taste more of themselves.
Back to the tasting menu. We begin with firm-fresh mackerel atop kohlrabi remoulade, with a gooseberry butter sauce which adds both richness and bite. We opt for the paired drinks but not before aperitifs have been ordered, so our starters are accompanied by a combination of rhubarb, rum and ginger bellinis and fantastically savoury Pickering’s gin and tonics, prettily garnished with nasturtiums and lovage respectively. The paired wines, it turns out, are served one-between-two, with each (generous) glass intended to accompany a couple of courses; a pace more easily managed than the speed-drinking often required with a tasting menu, and well suited to the low key, school room surroundings.
A rounded, clear-as-a-bell duck broth appears, adorned with teeth-squeakingly fresh green beans, courgette ribbons and red pepper, chased by a broad bean tortellini with a disco pink beetroot and ricotta sauce. The latter is the only course I don’t totally love, the pasta just a touch too al dente and crying out for a little salt – almost carried by the rudely fresh broad beans, but not quite. After consulting with tablemates after the event, it seems that one of them may have received my portion of crunchy sea salt in error. A tiny blip.
While you might hurry to eat something good, great food slows you almost to a halt, as every last crumb is savoured and committed to memory. The hake – with smoked plum tomatoes, nuggets of sweet lobster meat and spelt, crowned with a thoroughly glorious lobster foam – is definitely a ‘slower’, and eventually we’re running our fingers around the plates, chasing every last speck and drop into our mouths. Pure kitchen magic. Six more of these appear on the pass and we’re hastily devising a grab and run.
Pre-dessert, which we think is actual dessert, consists of a zingy strawberry sorbet, a dehydrated strawberry tuille with the deep Byzantium hue and earthy flavour to suggest that it may have met a beetroot at some point, malt flavoured whipped cream and a dab of savoury lovage oil. The next day I find MALT WHIPPED CREAM written in capital letters in the notes section of my phone, meaning that I might have enjoyed it, just a teensy bit. Cheese is a single slice paired painstakingly with a plate-mate, this evening a chunk of Kirkham’s Lancashire and what the waitress nicknames a ‘Waldorf chutney’ – a combination of apples, celery, sultanas and honey, a thoroughly wonderful idea that delivers well.
Wines have been subtly en pointe, beginning with a lightly luscious peaches-and-lychee number (nope, can’t remember) followed by a structured, buttery, oaky chardonnay, a grape and style now deservedly back in epicurean fashion after years of neglect and abuse. A dry marsala accompanies courses strawberry sorbet and cheese, all raisins and brown sugar on the nose yet pleasingly acetone on the tongue; a bravely niche and hedonistic choice, but a good match nonetheless.
A final glass of demi-sec Nyetimber fizz appears to go with the unexpected (actual) dessert, that has us all effervescent at the prospect of one more course. A squidgy, open textured hazelnut cake with a scoop of meadowsweet ice cream (a pharmacy flavour that’s been cropping up in Sunday supplements recently – very trendy) and blackcurrant cream. We are all happiness and piggery, and again debate the etiquette of actually licking the plate.
The Gardener’s Cottage is joy. The sparse decoration, po-faced jazz soundtrack played on actual vinyl records that have to be flipped every half hour, and local-vore garden forage cheffing might suggest a dedication to purity and seriousness that would rip delight and humour from food and replace it with piety. But this is a kitchen driven by joy. Of the seasons; of moments captured, preserved and shared. The joy of licked fingers and clean plates.
The Gardener’s Cottage, £40 for six (or seven) courses, drinks list beautifully curated and reasonably priced. 1 Royal Terrace Gardens, , Edinburgh. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.