It is hard to think of a better place than the Edinburgh Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre for Scotland’s first whisky restaurant.
The news about the opening of Amber restaurant and its dedication to whisky and food is as exciting to me as the discovery of an Egyptian tomb would be for an archeologist.
I had to go to Amber Restaurant and meet the chef.
Amber refers to some precious substance indeed and is of course very evocative of whisky. But it also sounds to me as something friendly, a pet name, exactly the one I would choose for a distillery cat.
Whisky Live Glasgow was the perfect opportunity to pay a visit to the temple of whisky and food. I had insisted I meet the chef. It was obvious that David Neave does not like to talk to journalists. Right from the beginning, I could see that he was mentally glancing at his watch.
“Achef’s place is in the kitchen, that’s his job”, he immediately said. “I am not good at describing what I do”.
I felt I was playing the sadist, torturing the prisoner to have him reveal where he hides the (amber) treasure.
The atmosphere was soft and quiet in the empty restaurant that morning. The room is fresh and clean, with white table cloths and minimalist decoration on the walls. Modern but not trendy.
Don’t expect to find deep fried mars bars in a tempura batter on the menu! Fusion food is not welcomed in David Neave’s kitchen:
“Fusion is often confusion. I do not use exotic spices. I do not like the fuss of sophistication. I just cook simple, natural ingredients the best I can. As I drive to work every morning, I can actually see the beef I will be buying in a few weeks.”
The chef takes a special pride in featuring the best of Scottish produce, solid and liquid.
“It makes sense to put together in the same plate the best shellfish from our coast and an Islay malt for example. It is a natural combination.”
David Neave does not hesitate to cook strongly tasted ingredients such as razor shells with a Bowmore or a Lagavulin – a tonic splash of iodine on the tastebuds.
“I keep in mind that the fishermen who gather scallops and lobsters for us risk their lives everyday. I live by the sea on the east coast, and I remember having seen a helicopter hoovering the sea one Sunday morning. The fisherman who supplied the restaurant had just fallen overboard. He lost his life that day. The least we can do for these men is to properly cook what they bring us.”
The chef has the most incredible selection of whiskies to match with the best of Scottish fare delivered every morning: the bar offers 270 different malts. Not surprising in a restaurant sponsored by the industry.
When he creates a whisky based recipe, David Neave tests it on the board of the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre. He never names the malt he has used. He just states the region: Speyside, Lowlands, Islay, so as not to offend the sponsors’ susceptibilities…
“I never say, they never ask. I do not use whisky just for the sake of having it in dishes. It has to bring distinctive flavours but without the alcohol. I do not like working with full strength whiskies. They overpower the food. I am free to choose any whisky. There are whiskies which just do not fit food.”
Salmon is a hit at Amber. For a starter: home oak smoked salmon soaked in Highland whisky sour cream and dill dressing; or as a main dish: wild Scottish salmon cooked with pearl barley, seaweed and Islay malt. A Bowmore 12 year old, the chef confesses under torture.
Meat and venison are often combined with Speyside malts, especially the sherried one. David Neave gives Whisky Magazine‘s readers his recipe of saddle of Balmoral venison, with Aberlour A’Bunadh. He sometimes uses Balvenie Double Wood.
David Neave has something in common with the whiskies he likes to put in his cuisine: intense, crisp, assertive, straightforward with a hidden smoothness which warms up as he opens… His daughter, aged 28, works in the kitchen with him. How is their relationship? “Robust”.
An opinionated chef, he does not reject criticism though. A food critic tackled his apple crumble in a chronicle. David Neave read the arguments carefully and reckoned he was right on quite a few points; so with his team, he revisited the recipe, adding oatmeal to make it crunchier, and being more generous on the whisky custard.
Sweets are not his favourite playground. “I hate it when the waiter comes in with an order of 10 cranachan, he says. I am just about to leave the kitchen!” A traditional Scottish sweet which seems to be a bore for the chef, just as crème brûlée has become in French restaurants. But he has made it a challenge, changing the recipe with the addition of mascarpone to make it smoother on the palate, and presenting it moulded on the plate, like a cake.
The same food critic who did not like the apple crumble gives a top mark to his dinner at Amber.
“Mainly the food was so good because the raw ingredients were superb and chef David Neave’s sauces were rich and subtle. I’d still rate this as comfortably the best meal of my year so far”.
Making the best with superb raw ingredients and classics takes more creativity than one would expect. Just as with whisky making.
David Neave’s recipes
Saddle of Balmoral venison, treacle and Speyside maltServes 6INGREDIENTS
- Saddle of venison (cut into medallions)
- Bacon (diced)
- Figs (jar of bitter sweet figs)
- Speyside malt (such as Aberlour A’Bunadh)
Heat a heavy bottomed pan and add a little oil and butter. When the pan is hot, add the venison with a slight covering of treacle. Colour the meat on both sides to seal in the juices. This will take a few minutes. 2.
Remove the meat from the pan and keep warm. Add the diced bacon to the same pan and cook rapidly. Add the malt whisky and flame. 3.
Add the figs and fig juice. Add the venison to the pan again and continue to cook for a minute. Once the sauce has thickened, serve.
- 2oz suet
- 1-2 medium onions (finely chopped)
- 6oz medium oatmeal
- Salt & pepper to taste
Chop the suet finely and put into a heated frying pan. When it is thoroughly melted, add the onions and brown them well. Add enough oatmeal to absorb the fat and make a fairly thick mixture. Season well and cook for a few minutes. Serve.
- 100g Scottish oatmeal (pinhead oatmeal)
- 300ml whipping cream
- 250g raspberries
- Castor sugar to taste
- Heather honey
- 200g mascarpone (or similar)
- 75ml malt whisky (Tamdhu)
Toast the oatmeal lightly. Place to one side to cool.2.
Whisk the cream to ribbon stage. Stir in the castor sugar. Add the mascarpone cheese, honey to flavour, and the whisky.3.
Set aside some raspberries for garnishing. Add the rest to the mixture along with the oatmeal.4.
Fold the mixture together until stiff. Place the mixture in small dessert rings and allow to set in the fridge. Garnish with raspberries and a ribbon of honey to serve.
Where to go
Amber at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre
354 Castle Hill, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2NETelephone:
+44 (0)131 477 8477www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk
Open for lunch on week days and in the evening on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.