While up at the Edinburgh Festival, my calmer half, Mikey, has been at home in London, exquisitely fielding my daily torrent of emotional mayhem with bottomless patience and positivity. I resolved that, as thanks, I’d treat him to a swanky-pants dinner when he visited. We went to The Witchery.
The ancient building is set right into the base of Edinburgh castle. We went early but on a Tattoo night. We needed to negotiate three whole layers of officious neon dicks at checkpoints to get there. I’ve met less annoying morris dancers. Eventually we, and the other 85+-year-old terror-suspects, were allowed through. In other words, leave extra time to get there if you’re going in the summer.
It set a funny tone for the whole night. As much as the food was great it was the characters we encountered that made it memorable. The restaurant was a character itself. Twinkling red candles lit a stone-floored chamber full of heavy gothic furniture and red velvet tablecloths. It was part cosy and romantic, part ‘oh this is where they sacrifice the virgins.’
A lovely waiter tucked us into a corner seat, from whence we could survey the whole drama. Only millimetres away were another couple, keen to have a smiling and oddly silent stare at us. It was painfully awkward until from behind a blind we heard a waiter shout “FUCK”. Haha. Even better, the ogling couple pretended not to have heard it. Luckily they finished up and left just as we began.
I started with cured red mullet. It’s not the best-looking fish (much like its counterpart haircut) but it more than makes up for it in yumminess.
Hot, meaty and packed with rich flavour, it sat next to a pretty pile of cucumber and tiny cubes of potato salad in a horseradish mayonnaise. The cool clarity of it all set the fish off beautifully. Nibbled with the fresh tomato bread they’d given us it made me very excited about mains.
Mikey triumphed though with a really delicious starter. He had smoked Tamworth ham hock. It was so juicy and salty. Capers and herbs ran through it.
Next to it were runny halved quail’s eggs. Then four dainty puddles of mustard and prune reductions. Those flavours and textures all chimed up together like a perfect choir. One try of that made mine seem boring.
A table of Americans had settled across the room. Painful stereotypes, they roared their conversation to one another as if they alone were competing with the background of a nightclub. Other diners barely repressed their dismay but we liked it. My favourite thing one of them barked was “SANDRA! ARE YOU GONNA TRY SOME OF MY HAGGIS?”
Next, I had hake with a black quinoa, mussel and pea velouté. It was glorious. The hake was cooked to perfection. Its understated taste stayed at the front of all the others. The black quinoa added crunch to its perfect softness. The sauce was rich and decadent but so packed with peas it had a cleanness to it as well. I’d never had those two things together; it made me smirk thinking of how posh it was, yet it had made me think of The Fast Show and ‘cheesy peas’. The mussels were obviously lovely; they were mussels. The sauce demanded to be finished and it troubled me that it got stuck in the nooks of the mussel shells, trapping unscoffed quinoa with it. When no one was looking, I ate it up with my fingers.
He had poussin. It came with a basil mash and some carefully manicured purple broccoli. The meat was so moist it was almost mousse-like, utterly excellent. Its accompanying cast though were mildly humdrum compared to my thrilling creamy molluscs.
As we awaited pudding some new diners sat nearby, a threesome of women. All in white suit jackets with blonde helmets of solid bob. Their faces stern and pinched, a chill came over us. We agreed to take turns on vigil in case one of them opened her mouth to reveal a protruding cyborg gun.
Mikey had a passionfruit and mascarpone trifle. I can take or leave trifle because of the soggy-gravelly middle but this one didn’t have that. It had glorious layers of powerful, sunshine jellies and creams and the gorgeous crunchy biscotti were on the side.
I’m not a pudding woman but this was the star attraction of the night by miles. It made me purr. I had poached rhubarb with pistachio cake and crème fraîche ice cream. It was OK. None of its elements really clouted me but the cake was warming.
All in all it had been a romantic and ridiculous adventure. Most of the food was great and even if our lives weren’t changed, we’ll not forget it in a hurry.
The Witchery, Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2NF
Tel: 0131 225 5613
Open: 12pm – 11.30pm (every day), booking strongly advised
Accessible: Not for wheelchairs particularly, it’s step-free but doorways are all extremely narrow and everything is fitted very snugly once you’re inside as well. There is no accessible toilet, just a few small steps into the small men’s and ladies’ ones down a very narrow passage. It’s because the building is no doubt listed, being set into the ancient bottom of the castle. Also, there’s a long steep, cobbled road to get to the restaurant (closed to cars).