That's why I liked the Gardener's Cottage so much - young, energised, sparky things, committed and passionate about local food and ingredients, doing great things. And the three restaurants I checked out all offered some buzzy promise to hungry Edinburgers: Aizle on St Leonard Street, Ting Thai Caravan on Teviot Row, and Salt Cafe on Morningside Road.
Aizle is a goodie. Tucked away on anonymous drag between South Clerk Street and Arthur's Seat, it is anything but inside - a simple, but warm interior of greys and whites, with big windows, views of the hills and crags just down the road. The joint is run by a Scottish-American couple who've toured the world cooking fancy food for fancy people, and now want to apply their bistronomical skills to local, seasonal fare in relaxed, homely environs.
The menu is not a conventional list of courses, but a list of ingredients they're working with that day - foraged, from their suppliers, from the market. Ours had unusual ingredients such as bee pollen, summer truffle, Inverurie hogget, sea astor, as well as more traditional ingredients: 'apples', 'blood orange', 'jersey royals'. The dishes are announced as they are brought to the table - and sometimes it's just a glimmer of one of those unusual ingredients you get - but each combination hit gold.
A trio of amuse bouche came first, which included an oyster, a mini stack of beetroot, steak tartare and saffron aioli, and a rice crisp with apple. This was followed by salt baked celariac, with celariac puree, a piece of fried chicken skin, then topped with apple. The combination of flavours was perfect - the salty, fatty skin, balanced by the earthy, deep flavours of the celariac, and the crisp freshness of the apple.
A fish course followed: mackerel, cooked simply, with thin slices of jersey royal potatoes, spring garlic, and various purees, drizzles and scatters that have left my memory. The final course was hogget (which I now know is an age of lamb -between lamb and mutton, with the tenderness of lamb and the flavour of mutton - no brainer really!), with a risotto like bulgur, pink radish, pink wildflowers and more unidentifiable gems of flavour.
I always worry that desserts in these kind of restaurants are going to be a bit austere, but not here. A rich chocolate terrine, with lemon curd and sweet cicely at the side, bee pollen and delicious sweet crispy shortbread-like wafers left us with the luxurious, sweet finale we wanted from such a special meal.
The good reviews have been pouring in, and the place was fully booked with a good mix of Edinburgers on the rainy Friday evening we were there. A sure sign that there's a healthy local appetite for exciting cooking. At £35 a head, it is also remarkably good value for a very special, inventive meal.
A mile away in Morningside, my old manor, and one famed for its pernickety older ladies, manners, tea shops and a bonanza of well stocked charity shops, Salt Cafe has just opened looking like an East London transplant - all gastropub grey exterior, bare bulbs, brunch and small plates. The area was clearly excited about it - tables were hard to come by at peak brunch hour on Sunday.
The menu included some nice flourishes: Smoked bacon and poached egg on sourdough with a bit of truffle in the hollandaise, welsh rarebit with smoky tomato chutney, french toast with summer fruits, and some bigger dishes like moules frites and burger.
With most dishes priced at £3.50 we enquired whether one would be enough. They assured us it would, but the dishes (all served in oversized, steep edged bowls) were definitely £3.50's worth of brunch, and therefore not really big enough for hungry brunchers. We ended up ordering seconds - no bad thing, because each item was delicious, and it's nice to have a selection - maybe brunch tapas could be a selling point, rather than something to iron out? Unlike serving toast based food in a bowl - not big or clever, just impractical.
Despite these issues, Salt Yard's proprietors have created a buzzy, young spot in an area crying out for fun, relaxed neighbourhood eating. There's clearly a market for more, and will be interesting to see if any pubs or bars tap into this market too.
Finally, we tried Ting Thai Caravan - a bustling Thai street food cafe just opposite the university. Also painted in gastropub grey and with bare bulbs, it's a fast paced, communal tables, loud music and brusk affair, with a big menu that includes meat/rice dishes, soups, noodles, curries and an interesting selection of snack/side dishes.
Another rainy lunchtime and the place was hoaching. We got the last table, and queues formed quickly and were seated quickly too. We ordered a big selection of mains, sides and a carafe of wine - and the bill came to less than £60 between six.
Dishes went well beyond the anglicised 'classics' - pungent, spicy marinades adorned pork, pickles and salsa-like condiments brought extra flavours to the plates, and dishes were heavy on vegetables too. Each dish is designed as a meal in itself, and students, lecturers and other local workers pop in to take away paper boxes full of this goodness.
The sides were inspired - and (all less than £2) meant you could quickly and cheaply sample lots of different flavours. We had an aromatic sausage chopped up with chilli and salad, tempura fried sweet potato chips (excellent texture), almost honeycomb like fried tofu with a sweet chilli dressing, and tempura fried juicy prawn skewers.
It was a fun experience, maybe a bit noisy for some, but an excellent antidote to central Edinburgh's mostly tourist-focused fare.