Since I wasted away my late teenage years at Auld Reekie’s major seat of learning, I’ve never been back to the Scottish capital. A combination of being a lousy student, plus having a grant so minuscule it compelled me to live on smoked sausage suppers (one of the capital’s more recherché culinary specialities) and ‘Carlsberg Special With a Vodka In It’, left me with less-than-happy memories. Nor, back then, was Edinburgh big on the kind of thing that might appeal to the trainee sybarite. Little wonder I spent so much time huddling in gorgeous Edwardian pubs against the biting East Coast wind.
But my, how things have changed. Edinburgh now boasts the greatest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK outside London. And one of them, the quirkily monikered 21212, offers the ideal excuse to go back. A certifiably insane taxi driver drops us at a perfect example of Edinburgh’s legendary Georgian architecture, a towering townhouse, all impossibly lofty ceilings, sweeping staircase (complete with original butlers trays) and stunning windows.
My Mr Smith is utterly smitten, not only with our restaurant with rooms, but with Edinburgh in general. If he says, ‘This has to be Britain’s most beautiful city,’ just once more, any romantic notions might be severely dashed. Which at 21212 would be an enormous shame. From the giant Caravaggio mural in the ‘pod’ in which we take our breakfast – as remarkable as everything else: eggs turned into Mirò paintings with slicks of herb and jewels of Bayonne ham; locally smoked salmon generously strewn with caviar – to the vast, snowy linened bed, this a scene perfectly designed for seduction.
Our hosts are chef Paul Kitching and his partner Katie O’Brien, the former creating some kind of crazy chemistry in the restaurant’s open kitchen, the latter charming us to pieces on reception or serving breakfast. We’re in room 1, up a staircase carpeted in arresting thistle-and-moth patterned carpets from Glaswegian designer duo, Timorous Beasties. Our windows look out over greenery to the distant Firth of Forth; a huge, crisp-sheeted bed lolls on a curtained platform; there’s a large but discreet plasma-screen TV, a soft, nubbly sofa to collapse into, and masses of glossy, foodie-focused goodies to read. A lovely touch is a vintage decanter of port. Nightcaps, ahoy.
As for the huge bathroom, it is rather like having our own personal spa. A vast shower offers gusts of high-pressure water; an egg-shaped bath is most glamorous and comes complete with floor-set uplighters for creating a special bathtime mood; there are Noble Isle products on tap. And what’s this – underfloor heating? The toastiest toes, guaranteed, even in the depths of a Scottish winter: bliss.
The hotel is right next door to Calton Hill, a steep stagger up for an astonishing view of the city. And down the swoop of Leith Walk lie the bars and restaurant of the old docks. We take a walk down to the vaguely bonkers new Scottish Parliament building. Then it’s up the Royal Mile, along with every other tourist in town, to the Castle... Although, alas, we don’t quite make it.
We’re lured back to those glorious Edwardian pubs – the Kenilworth, Guildord and Abbotsford and seriously ravishing Café Royale, all beautifully preserved slices of the boozy past. We head down to louche Stockbridge and the Bailey, Kay’s and the St Vincent. I have stovies, the ugliest foodstuff ever seen, in the handsome Cumberland Bar. The oniony potatoes may cause Mr Smith to blanch at the eccentricities of the Scottish diet, but, mmm, they're good.
We finally weave back – ‘We thought you’d got lost,’ says Katie – and concur it’s like staying in a pal’s super-posh home. After a splash about in our ‘spa’, dinner beckons. The brocade-lined dining room, where dreamy, dried-sage-coloured drapes create an intimate, boudoir atmosphere, is the setting for a culinary thrill ride. Here’s how one dish appears on the menu, verbatim: ‘Smoked Haddock Made Interesting. Gently baked haddock with olive oil, saffron + jumbo scallop, baked bean, ratatouille, two black ingredients??, buttered crumpets, very tiny summer vegetables, lightly curried creamy smoked salmon bisque (smoked salmon is always interesting)’. Isn’t that heaven?
Half the fun is trying to indentify the different constituents. A musky wafer turns out to be dehydrated mushroom ‘parchment’; a little waxed paper cup contains porridge and wheat milk. I’ve eaten my way round the world (as my waistline attests) and I can confidently say that Paul is a one-off. His presentation, especially, is unique: tiny elements of each dish jostling and hiding others. It’s like a treasure hunt. There are bizarre, tricky two pronged forks, coffee is served in paper cups; Paul’s humour may be playful, but he has the skill to pull it off.
I’m trying hard to find a whinge about 21212 (the name, if you’re wondering, comes from the menu’s unusual binary layout: two courses, then one and so on). The stairs might prove a challenge for anyone with mobility issues (or those who’ve enjoyed too much of Edinburgh’s liquid hospitality). I suppose, like an excited child, I do like to find a minibar in my room. And it might be nice instead of all-French cheeses, to have Scottish ones on the menu. But you can tell I’m struggling. The hotel – and its lovely owners – have made this food critic look at her old alma mater with a new, glowing appreciation. And that’s no small achievement.