Fresh, local, seasonal, personal – a unique dining experience in the capital.
Recently, match.com got in touch to ask me to review somewhere in Edinburgh that would be suitable for a first date. There are so many lovely independent places around the capital that would make for a different sort of dining experience than your average high street chain, and what’s more – they don’t have to break the bank. Unless you want to, but that might look a bit keen. Really we’re spoilt for choice here and I definitely had a few contenders on my list, then suddenly the perfect place sprang to mind: The Gardener’s Cottage. I had visited the restaurant last Summer but not with a first date mindset – so when we went on our (fake) first date last Friday, I saw it all with fresh eyes.
Nestled in Royal Terrace Gardens at the foot of Calton Hill, The Gardener’s Cottage is just what it says: the building dates back to 1836 and was designed by renowned Edinburgh architect William Playfair as home to the gardener. The B-listed building was transformed into a restaurant by dynamic chef duo Dale Mailley and Edward Murray in 2012 and has been getting rave reviews ever since. There are surely few things more romantic than wandering up the garden path to your dinner, tucked away in a cosy wee cottage – most likely passing a fair few of your meal’s ingredients on the way. The night of our visit was the most perfect Spring evening and one of the first proper golden hours of the season, which only added to the appeal. That said I think it would be just as romantic – and possibly even cosier – on a dreich Edinburgh evening too.
Stepping into the Gardener’s Cottage is like walking into the dining room of an old friend (an old friend with lots of chairs and tables, but you get the gist). There’s something lovely about the restaurant’s open-house ethos and homely style – from the record player in the corner (we were plucking up the courage to make a request) to the hallway larder cupboard, and of course the stunning open kitchen. It’s an immersive experience, and there’s something so special about seeing your dinner being made – as if the performance is all just for you. The décor of the cottage is stylishly rustic but authentic too; lots of wood, stripped-back floorboards and whitewashed walls, with industrial and vintage details such as those exposed bulbs, record player and old church chairs.
At this stage a disclaimer might be pertinent: The Gardener’s Cottage is a social dining affair. You’re right – those are communal tables. I swithered about this one when deciding where to go, but came to the conclusion that on a first date this may well be worth the gamble. It takes a wee bit of pressure off the one-on-one intensity, and if things aren’t going so well you can always strike up a conversation with your neighbour – you never know, they might be in the same boat. It might be best to warn your companion beforehand so you don’t look like you’re trying to give them the brush-off, mind. Our neighbours were a tad vocal (and gave my picture taking more than a weird look), but it didn’t detract from the dining experience for us (and gave us a giggle or two later as well – shh).
The set, seasonal six-course menu changes every day too – when I first heard this I was a little worried (what about the veggies?!) but they are wonderful about dietary requirements – just let them know before. You certainly get a lot for your £30 a head (as you will see), especially considering what a meal for two now costs from a standard high street chain. For a twenty-something professional I think it’s pretty reasonable and shows you’ve really put thought into it. It might not be for pickier diners (though again, if you give them a heads up they can factor in any no-go ingredients). However, the changing fare means you genuinely get the best seasonal and locally sourced food that there is, quite literally from the restaurant’s doorstep. The all-from-the-garden ethos extends to the drinks too – Al plumped for a gin and tonic (with botanical garnish, naturally) and I went for a yummy sounding rhubarb and ginger bellini, which was as good as it looks.
Of course, it depends on your date but I think a set menu can be great for trying new things. Eating out you tend to go for the same options or safe-sounding flavour combinations but Gardener’s Cottage affords the opportunity to try something new – you might just surprise yourself. This adds a touch of the unexpected to a first date, and if you’re fine with a bit of mystery then you will love it – you can even ask them to keep each course secret until it’s brought to you. To whet our appetites, first up was the restaurant’s homemade sourdough, with crab butter for Al and a generous serving of olives. You might think the bread portion is a wee bit stingy but actually I think they’re doing you a favour – trust me, you really don’t want to fill up on bread before the main event(s).
Our starter arrived promptly – a beautifully light salad with pickled vegetables, with razor clams and crispy chicken skin for Al. Both were served with a very tasty beer mayo and edible flowers – a lovely touch reminding you where what you are eating came from – i.e. the garden just outside the window. My salad had pickled radish and toasted hazelnuts, and was the perfect balance of earthy, sharp and nutty flavours. I think mine was maybe salted twice by mistake as it was a little over-seasoned for my taste, but a minor fault in a well-balanced dish. Al enjoyed his as well, especially the combination of textures and the saltiness (!).
Next up for me was a beautiful plate of purple sprouting broccoli with wild garlic pesto, fermented turnip, homemade yoghurt and a perfectly poached egg. The combination of earthy veg, fresh, herby flavours and sharpness of the yoghurt, cut through by that gorgeously rich egg yolk, was divine. Meanwhile, Al had a (rather large!) portion of black pudding with the pesto and turnip, which he says was deliciously hearty – the best course of the lot, he thought.
My main course was stunning: wild garlic pesto with goat’s cheese, salt-baked turnip and asparagus. I saw the restaurant announce that their asparagus was in season on twitter, and had been hoping it would be on the menu that night. My first asparagus of the year definitely didn’t disappoint and was the perfect partner for the gorgeous, wafer-thin pasta (the garlic flavour wasn’t overpowering at all), tangy goat’s cheese and salty, butter-soft turnip. It was a rather generous portion, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. For his main, Al had a smoked mackerel broth; he said the fish was perfectly cooked and that the broth had a lovely depth of flavour as well as texture from the pearl barley.
Next was a sorbet to cleanse the palette – an apple concoction with rye crumb and woodruff cream. This was really yummy – fresh, fruity and subtle, and I’ve no idea what a woodruff is but it added delicious flavour to the light-as-air cream. After that was the cheese course: a goat’s cheese from Ayrshire with crispbread and pickled beetroot. It was rather subtle and had a lovely close texture so went nicely with the crackers, and the sweetness of the beetroot was a lovely touch.
By then we were starting to feel full but not unpleasantly so, and with plenty of room for pudding, which I was rather glad about. This was my favourite course of all six from our visit. It was something of a carrot medley: carrot cake cone, carrot mousse and a carrot ripple ice cream, made to look like an over-turned ice cream cone. Safe to say it’s the best carrot cake I’ve ever eaten, dense but moist and with subtle spicing, while the mousse and ice cream were gorgeously light and creamy. It was the perfect end to a very memorable meal indeed.
If your date is pretty cool – i.e. not too fussy, not flummoxed by social situations and not fearful of vegetables, i.e. a catch, then The Gardener’s Cottage will be a top-notch first date spot. With a bit of organisation (sneakily finding out any food no-nos and informing the restaurant, trying to perfectly time your visit with the sunset), it could make for a perfect first date – one you might tell the great-grandkids about one day. And if (heaven forefend) your date doesn’t like The Gardener’s Cottage, well… there are plenty more fish in the sea.
Disclaimer: this post is in partnership with match.com. They asked me to recommend and review a first date spot, and covered the cost of our meal. However, I would certainly pay for a meal there myself and never write about anything I wouldn’t recommend to a friend.