In researching the finer restaurants in Edinburgh, one name was mentioned more than others; The Witchery. Looking at their website, one sees a celebrity list to rival an BAFTA runway. It took a bit of work to get reservations and before my arrival, I asked local cab drivers and hotel staff what they thought. All were enthusiastic with exclamations of, "Oh! That is where my husband brought me for my anniversary last year!" or "It is the most elegant restaurant in town -- a place to go for special occasions!" Upon arrival, I could see the décor as reminiscent of an old world men's club with its dark wood and elegance. I was greeted warmly and seated near the outdoor garden. Perusing the menu, I had mostly decided to order a variety of starters as they did not offer a tasting menu (despite asking beforehand).
At a table nearby, I spied another solo diner, a young woman asking the waiter what venison tasted like. It was obvious he couldn't supply even the modicum of a reasonable answer and I intervened to offer an explanation. Realizing that she was not waiting for anyone, I invited her to join me at my table as we were both obviously dining alone. Melody and bonded quickly; both traveling alone, both looking for the best restaurant in town, and (charmingly enough), both members of a known cabal of knitters via Ravelry.com. Chatting about food and travel and yarn, a friendship was born over what would ultimately prove to be incredibly mediocre food.
Wanting to experience the ultimate in a haggis experience, I started my meal with their "Finlay's of Portobellow award winning haggis" served with "neeps and tatties" (potatoes and rutabagas). Going completely traditional, I also ordered a serving of Scotch, a 20-year Oban. The potato was whipped and formed into a quennelle, then fried while the neeps was puréed and served alongside a golfball-sized haggis. Despite an insipidly thin sauce, this was the most intriguing dish of the evening so that doesn't say much. Melody ordered a starter of scallop which was served in a half-shell with Iberico pancetta. These scallops were obviously sliced in half, swimming in over-seasoned, over-cooked and over-salted melted butter. Mel enjoyed them, but I found them inedibly salty.
Our main courses arrived. Melody definitely enjoyed her first-time venison, but I found it flabby and poorly prepared. Under the fanned slices of over-cooked meat was some of the same neeps purée that I had with my haggis and a slice of potato gratin all surrounded with a puddle of thin, clumsy sauce. The plating and all the components seemed rather bourgeois after the perfection and artistry I had experienced the night before at The Kitchin. The true catastrophe of the meal lied in my seafood platter. A cold selection of local seafood, the platter included oysters, clams, mussels, lobster, and prawns. There was also a half-shell offering of smoked salmon, tartare, and some mayonnaise-based fish salad. While not blatantly bad, it was obvious that it was simply not the best quality fish available, nor had it been recently prepared. The clams and mussels were puny and chewy. The lobster was mealy. The oysters were not well-shucked with bits of shell and no liquor left with the mollusk meat. Had Melody not helped me out, more than half of the offering would have sat un-eaten.
I wasn't ready to give up on the food and my new compatriot and I were having such a great time chatting that we decided to give the desserts a try. In my usual fashion, I opted for a cheese plate with a glass of Sauterne. Between The Kitchin and the café at Modern Art Museum, I had experienced several excellent offerings of Scottish-made cheeses and I was anxious to taste some more. God bless Mel for picking the dessert sampler which included a chocolate torte and sorbet, mango parfait, bread and butter pudding, pistachio macaroon, and puff candy ice cream. My cheese plate was offered in a rather perfunctory fashion with no descriptives and I called the waiter over to ask for an explanation of what types of cheeses I was being served. He started to tell me so that I could make notes when I realized he was speaking French. Well, they were all French cheeses -- no local Scottish or even English cheeses. I didn't bother to write them down. And Mel's dessert sampler? I think we liked the chocolate torte but they were all unremarkable and went unfinished.
So, is The Witchery all it is cracked up to be by those locals who had raved about it? I believe it is but only because it is mired in a 1970s sentimentality of what a fancy, special occasion restaurant should be. It is all bells and whistles and no substance. And for those in search of truly excellent cuisine, it should be avoided at all costs. But for me, it will be the place where I at least met a great new friend.
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