High Society dining

The restaurant at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society ought to know about serving whisky with food. Just to check, Ian Buxton dined there twice in three days
By Ian Buxton
It’s just over a year since the Scotch Malt Whisky Society took a giant leap forward and opened its elegant premises at 28 Queen Street, Edinburgh.

For those of you who are not members of the Society (and you should be!), or if you don’t know Edinburgh, this was a bold undertaking.

Queen Street is one of the premier locations in Edinburgh’s ‘New Town,’ so called because it was built in the 18th century. It was built as a series of large and stylish town houses overlooking some well-tended private gardens and is part of the Georgian heart of Edinburgh.

However, the street itself is now a very busy thoroughfare (don’t get me started on the traffic management policies of Edinburgh City Council) and most of the houses have been converted to offices. Number 28 had fallen on hard times and was sadly in need of a major makeover.

In stepped the Society with plans for a central Edinburgh bolt-hole for their members: a haven of calm from the city’s increasingly frenetic streets to be available without the inconvenience of getting to Leith, where the original Society HQ remains.

But it was a substantial project, far larger than anything they had ever previously attempted. And, in an ambitious departure, the ground floor was to be given over to a dedicated restaurant reserved for members and their guests.

I don’t suppose I was alone in doubting the wisdom of this move. It seemed a risky venture and one that took the Society beyond its ‘core competence’ (note deft use of management consultancy jargon there). However, along with my dinner, I’ve had to eat my words – this is a success, and one beyond even the Society’s most ambitious plans I will wager.

The kitchen fit-out ran behind the main completion, so the 32 seat restaurant is just coming up to its anniversary. However, now it’s in full flow. At lunchtime it’s full of business members (the Society’s corporate membership scheme really finding favour now) networking and entertaining clients. Thankfully, mobile phones are banned. For private parties there is the oval room, which seats 12.

In the evening, the mood changes. Members are using the restaurant heavily, and the pre-theatre menu is proving particularly popular. The atmosphere is immensely ‘clubbable’ and if you don’t meet old friends you will in all probability make new ones.

In fact, so successful is this operation that the kitchens will soon have to be expanded, displacing the management offices to the top floor where they will take over the rental apartments. They’ll be closed and, in their place, a boardroom facility for daytime meetings will be introduced.

Smokers still have their own room, and a selection of fine cigars, but this pleasure is about to be removed by the Scottish Parliament, as all smoking in public places will be prohibited from early in 2006.

Society members will miss the popular whisky and cigar evenings, but no doubt the Holyrood health czars know what’s best.

Back in the restaurant, however, the food itself is a delight: light but satisfying, presented with flair by James Freeman’s young and ambitious brigade and complemented by the subtle classical décor of the dining room. The presentation, on attractive asymmetrical designer glass plates, is most striking and worthy of a star listing in its own right.

All this is supported by a tight but well-balanced wine list, full of surprises and a few bargains. Of course, whisky is the real star here but the same thought and attention to detail that goes into the Society’s selection of casks has clearly also gone into the make up of the cartes des vins. And a good thing too, given the long-standing connection between Scotland’s capital and the wine trade.

Purely in the interests of research, I lunched with the Society’s Annabel Meikle (it was her birthday, but I am not so ungallant as to give away a lady’s age) and later returned for dinner with my wife.

Lunch was a selection of culinary classics: hot Scotch salmon with gazpacho salsa (marinated in the Society’s Hopscotch Sauce) followed by Aberdeen Angus rib eye steak in a whisky peppercorn sauce. The Society’s chef had selected a dry and herbal malt from the northern Highlands (Society bottling 59.27 to be exact) and the sauce was certainly dry and aromatic, not cloying as it sometimes can be despite the reduction to jus. It balanced the peppercorns quite delightfully.

An indulgent selection of desserts were on offer: chocolate cappuccino with caramel foam, lightly touched with a drop of Yoichi single malt from Japan and a 13 year old Strathmill had joined forces with a Glenkinchie in the whisky ice cream with whisky caramel shards.

“A dram too far” do I hear you say? After all, whilst one whisky in your dessert might be thought epicurean; two is surely barbarous gluttony? Well, though I can’t claim to have made a distinction in the flavours (I shall claim that the cold of the ice cream simultaneously refreshed my taste buds whilst chilling my palate) it certainly worked for me. It was complex, stimulating and rather a lot of fun, provided you don’t get too purist about your drams.

Meanwhile, I was learning about the Society’s foodie evenings. Members gather to savour sausages; snap up steak pies; choose chocolate and consume cheese.

This latter is very much Annabel’s speciality. Formerly a cheese buyer for a renowned Edinburgh delicatessen, she has been partnering cheese and whisky at these evenings for some little while. Highlights include a young Laphroaig with Lanark Blue, made from ewes’ milk, and Highland Park showcased alongside a smoked Gubeen, from County Cork.

Just to show off, I first encountered this little beauty in Dean and deLuca’s flagship store just off Broadway in New York. However, I was then chastened to return home, rave about it to my wife who, saying nothing, immediately produced a generous slice from our local deli (at around half the price). So, from first hand experience, I can confirm that Gubeen and whisky is a marriage made in heaven, even if first consummated in sinful SoHo!

However, back in Auld Reekie, our dinner began with a walnut crusted loin of venison, with beetroot salad and a honey and whisky glaze. The venison was all but raw, subtly complemented by a dash of the Society’s bottling of Brora. This is not a well-known malt but the opportunity to explore the range of flavours it opens up with the venison is not to be missed.

Strangely, that was where the food and whisky connection ground to a halt. A new menu is under development, however, and you can expect a few surprises and delights in the months to come.

Meanwhile, the Society has forged a link with the ‘Slow Food’ movement. That seems entirely apt given whisky’s long maturation and can only help promote a wider appreciation of the cratur’s contribution to good living.

And good living is surely the motto for this most delightful of restaurants. I’m happy to report my concerns were misplaced – with a vibrant cuisine, enthusiastic clientele and elegant surroundings, 28 Queen Street has surely entered a new and stimulating phase in its long history.


The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

28 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JX
Telephone: +44 (0)131 220 2044
Members only, plus guests.