Commercial Quay, a phalanx of converted warehouses, faces the Scottish Executive in the Port of Leith. Modern? Yes. A surefire location for an upscale restaurant? Well actually, no. Three previous owners of what is now the Kitchin failed. That isn't a prospect facing 29-year-old Tom Kitchin. Only a few months after opening he already has a Michelin star and business is booming.
His motto, engraved on the glass windows and printed on his menu, is "From nature to plate". One day after the woodcock-hunting season closed he was plucking, singeing and trussing a tray of the long-beaked birds to roast as a daily special. His care over sourcing Scottish produce is precise and far-ranging: from Arran Organics vegetables, grown using seaweed for fertilizer, to the Perthshire Hills heather honey that he makes into a parfait served with kumquats and cardamom brandy snaps (£6).
A chef with an impressive pedigree, he travelled from Gleneagles to La Tante Claire, Guy Savoy and, ultimately, Alain Ducasse's Louis XV in Monte Carlo. Taking a break, he worked as a private chef for JCB magnate Lord Bamford, swanning around the Mediterranean for a year living in a combination of yachts and châteaux.
His true mentor and great friend is Pierre Koffmann: "He came down and worked in the kitchens for a week when we opened." Every piece of equipment, every plate chez Kitchin was bought from him. They had been kept in store, pristine and in perfect order, waiting for their moment to resurface.
The formative influence of Koffmann emerges discreetly through a dish of pork and langoustines served with a crisp pigs' ear salad (£14). The pork is from a pig's head simmered for about eight hours and boned, and the cheek meat is rolled inside the jellied rind. It's an updated take on a famous Koffmann stuffed pig's trotter recipe.
Kitchin claims that his short but balanced menus change all the time, always responsive to any prime ingredients that become available. When he opened, taking a leaf from Gordon Ramsay, he posted a menu for under £13. Now the five à la carte starters range from £7 to £14 and six mains hover above £20. Any Hibernian element is incidental rather than contrived. Pan-fried foie gras with haggis, neeps and tattie à la Kitchin, a £12 starter, sounds humorous, but confounds expectations. The raw turnips (neeps) are preserved in a sweet and sour pickling liquor, not mashed.
Vegetable classics from the French repertoire figure strongly in several main-course dishes. A pepper stew with Bayonne ham (pipérade basquaise) accompanies a boned and stuffed saddle of lamb (£24). Cumin-scented caviar d'aubergines bolsters a combination of red mullet and squid (£19). It's serious French cooking from a chef who admits: "I'm often disappointed when I go to eat out in France nowadays."
A dessert that owes more to Lady Bamford than Ducasse or Koffmann is a winter dessert of rhubarb. His former employer's wife, who is also behind the Daylesford Farm inititiative in the Cotswolds, is passionate about the quality of raw materials. The forced rhubarb is flavoured with grated orange zest (her idea), layered between oatmeal crumble in a dried ribbon of rhubarb (Kitchin's sous chef's idea) with an accompanying sauce, based on a crème anglaise, that incorporates the juice the fruit has rendered.
If his cooking reflects the three three-star bosses who shaped him, Kitchin admits he is careful about spending every centime since he has become a chef-patron. He hasn't put tablecloths in the 45-seat dining room, because he hasn't wanted to commit to the £40,000-per-year laundry bill that would ensue. Even without them there's a sense that this is a professional restaurant, comfortable in the top flight.
"In my first year at Tante Claire," Kitchin recalls wryly, "I must have been fired 45 times." Now, without a doubt, Pierre Koffmann must be proud to see another of his many protégés doing their stuff.
What's on the menu
- Carpaccio of wild halibut and beetroot with pickled garlic, capers and lemon dressing, £8.50
- Roast fillet of roe deer with celeriac, roast pear and chestnuts served with a juniper berry sauce, £23
- Saddle of rabbit farced with spinach and shallots served with a slow-cooked pipérade basquaise, £24
- Fillet of beef bordelaise with bone marrow, sautéd mushrooms and potato gratin, £22
- Red mullet upside-down, roast squid, cumin-scented aubergine caviar with spice sauce, £19
- Roast tail of monkfish wrapped in pancetta, with Jerusalem artichokes, salsify and roast garlic, £21
- Fillet of wild turbot poached in red wine with confit of leeks à la crème, £23
- Biscuit glacé with marinated vanilla citrus, £5
- Cinnamon-spiced apple and chestnut compote served with apple sorbet, £6
Foie gras sliced, flash-frozen and fried from frozen cuts out nearly all the waste. It's something I learnt at the Louis XV in Monte Carlo, and all the French chefs now do it.
78 Commercial Quay, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 6LX. Tel: 0131-555 1755. Website: www.thekitchin.com