City of the Dead
To get to Timberyard, I took a shortcut past St Cuthbert's and through its little community of gravestones sheltered under the castle’s watchful glower. It felt natural: Edinburgh has always been a sepulchral city, a place of echoes and shadows of my former self to encounter around every corner. Here is where I was scared witless as a child on a ghost tour; here is where I was bored senseless as my mother shopped for a jacket that could stand up to the cold. Here I am, escaping my job in London, visiting my brother at the university, happy to play the gawky older sibling because of how little effort it requires, despairing at the loose leaves of oregano strewn across his kitchen table (reader, it was a different herb). Here I am with my family, or with the woman who would become my wife, or – this, most recent time – sitting in a long handsome hardwood dining room, a pine sap negroni in hand.
It’s really good, too; the best twist on this drink I've ever had. It instantly relocates the original cocktail, ripping it away from my associations with Piazza della Passera in Florence and concoctions drunk by the half-pint on balmy summer nights; putting down instead deep, loamy roots in the hillcountry north of the wall, the artfully shaved ice cube not a coolant but a token of the dun dreich February night outside. It’s an immensely promising opening act compromised ever so slightly a few minutes later by an eccentric wine list full of grapes I don't want to drink by the glass, many of them ambitiously priced beyond my ambition. I go with a bummy natural Syrah / Grenache blend that is as funky and meaty as hung grouse. This is a good thing, I think.
Things take a little longer to get into gear on the food front. Porter bread with whipped butter and smoked salt is fine, but if I’m going full Andy Hayler baked goods snob on it I’d venture to suggest it’s a little dense (I would say more Dawn than Cole, but she's a published author, so the joke's on me). A single shaving of goose ham, a nugget of salami, and a squelch of fermented cucumber arrive next – all made Clove Clubbily in-house. I don’t really get the kudos accorded to people for rubbing some stuff on a bit of meat and hanging it out to dry for a while, so maybe I’m not best qualified to pass judgement beyond “fine” on the animal flesh; I know deep in my bones, however, that the cucumber savours greenly, coldly, of something growing by, or maybe even in, a grave.
But we’re off to the races with the dinner’s proper opening salvo, a mackerel / oyster / kohlrabi assemblage that comes on like Rene Redzepi reimaginging that iconic Ledbury dish. If I had the skill to make it myself I’d probably juice the ratio of ingredients in favour of the oyster emulsion and to the disadvantage of the brassica but, as they say of people who eat too many oysters, chacun a son gout. There is certainly no arguing with the mackerel, which is exquisitely cooked, if maybe lacking the snap and crackle on the skin you get down at Brett Graham's gaff.
Duck egg with Jerusalem artichoke and cep reads beautifully, if familiarly; a jumble of complementary ingredients that sing of comfort during long winter months: a hygge in a mug. Unfortunately this one could fit into a mug with room to spare; it is jarring to see such parsimony in presentation when the flavours are so profoundly generous. The white is also on the boaky side of underdone for me – but as the record shows I have a particularly sensitive stomach here.
Four – with a few extra little bits and pieces, maybe – is the perfect number of courses. But portion sizing represents a bit of a high-wire act; it’s hard to find a satisfying midpoint between the bog standard à la carte triumvirate and a full belts-and-braces tasting menu. Here, where the egg felt practically naked, the lamb arrives overdressed in a Birnam Wood of kale and broccoli and some very unseasonal pea-shoots. Once it has been excavated, it is fantastic: possibly not the noblest beast to have walked the earth, but butchered and cooked to perfection, a thick collar of fat left on and crisped to the verge of indecency. With that natural Syrah / Grenache – now emerging from a mid-life crisis as a barnyard literally on fire – it is utterly winning.
Pudding is very Great British Menu in its pinks and its whites and its fruit leathers and gels and sheep's yoghurt. But wow how delicious, the rhubarb's flavour surprisingly unadulterated, its sourness left intact. An exclamation mark to finish a menu that has gone from strength to strength, a jolt to the cortex, rather than a slow flabby collapse into butterfat and pastry. A sudden memory of chewing on a stalk as a child, sprinkling more sugar on top after each bite, the only way to beat the sharpness. A pause for contemplation, for questioning how we – people, cooks, restaurants – grow and develop; a hope that Timberyard will continue to cook such delicious food, but will have the confidence to do it in its own way, not in fealty to anyone else's trends. A quiet delight that it exists in its current form, nonetheless.
And then back, another walk among the tombstones. A fresh grave that will in time be overgrown, overlooked; a visit that will grow dim in the memory. It will take a while.