When people think about British cuisine, if they do at all, they don’t think much. But the Isles are home to dozens of Michelin-rated restaurants, and hundreds of other establishments that showcase the diverse range of cultures and ingredients available in the United Kingdom.
On a recent trip to Scotland, I had the opportunity to experience some fine examples of the local cuisine, from steak pies at a Glasgow whisky bar to fish and chips in a historic fishing town on the North Sea. But two restaurants in unexpected locations helped me understand modern Scottish cuisine with a true sense of place.
Experimental in Edinburgh
Driving into Edinburgh we arrived at our destination for the night, the Kimpton Charlotte Square Hotel in the heart of downtown, around the corner from the funky shops and pubs of Rose Street. Tired from driving, we decided to have a drink at the hotel bar and stay for dinner. Inside, nestled in a lush central courtyard, we were lucky to find the experimental farm-to-table cuisine of chef Lewis Vimpany at Aizle.
The space could not be better suited for the cuisine. Aizle serves a multi-course menu crafted with local, seasonal ingredients, presented in fantastic plate settings inspired by Scotland’s natural spaces.
“Inspiration comes from all over,” says Vimpany. “The natural beauty around us here in Scotland makes an amazing backdrop with colors and texture. Things our guests can touch, feel and smell. Also, we are very blessed to have worked with some amazing ceramicists from around the U.K., and when you’ve got some of the best plates around, it’s down to you to do them justice.”
Take the canapés, for instance – a dip of whipped Isle of Mull cheddar accompanied by leaf-shaped sweet potato crisps, which arrived in a nest plate surrounded by Scottish moss.
Born in Fife, on the East Coast of Scotland, Vimpany started his career at Michelin starred Number One at the Balmoral Hotel before joining the staff at restaurant Andrew Fairlie in Perthshire. He worked alongside chef Billy Boyter in his newly opened The Cellar, followed by a year abroad at restaurant Vue de Monde in Melbourne, and in Ireland at Aimsir where he was part of the team that earned two Michelin stars four months after opening.
When he returned home to Scotland, he took up the position of sous chef at Aizle under executive chef Stuart Ralston, before being promoted to head chef in 2022.
The menu at Aizle does not describe dishes in detail, or in any specific order. Instead, it’s a list of ingredients used in the current menu, which are sourced from all over the U.K. During our visit these included beetroot, crab, wild mushrooms, lamb belly, wild garlic, asparagus and rhubarb, among others. As dishes arrive, members of a young, multicultural staff describe them in detail, down to the names of the towns and farms from which ingredients come.
“We are really spoiled in Scotland to work with some amazing gamekeepers, foragers and small independent farms,” says Vimpany. “Sometimes sourcing is easy, as specific suppliers search us out as our values and priorities align. Other times we know exactly what to research to find the right supplier, whether online, asking around, even visiting markets and asking if they can supply us with certain things.”
Dishes and menus change with the seasons in a natural progression. Vimpany advises that guests wishing to visit again for a different menu should wait around 12 weeks or so.
“With such varied, abundant and opulent produce available, from wild game caught by gamekeepers and world-famous cattle breeds to some of the best shellfish and fish in the world, it makes it easy to represent Scotland,” says the chef. “Our job is purely to allow that produce to speak for itself and give it the platform it deserves to shine.”
The menu at Aizle is offered with optional beverage pairings, and I highly recommend that you take that option. Curated by Edinburgh Sommelier of the Year Stuart Skea, the accompanying drinks range from house made kombucha to cocktails and a variety of wines from across the globe. Skea has experience working with vast wine lists at Scottish institutions like Prestonfield House and Champany Inn, and has been awarded as one of Harpers’ top 25 Sommeliers in the U.K. and will be included in the inaugural top 100 Sommeliers U.K. 2023. He is as knowledgeable as he is friendly, willing to guide you in picking the right wines.
Seafood in Glasgow
After a detour to the Scottish Highlands and a drive through the most incredibly picturesque roads, we arrived in downtown Glasgow to the Kimpton Blythswood Square hotel, the only five-star property in the city, which is perfectly located within walking distance of many interesting sites.
Upon check in we were greeted by Bonnar, a lovely black lab that serves as the hotel’s head of pet relations. During our stay, the hotel earned an award as the best pet-friendly hotel in Scotland, of which Bonnar was extremely proud. And as we were extremely thirsty from traveling, we headed straight to the bar.
The hotel’s bar and restaurant, iasg, is a beautifully appointed space, elegant yet laid back and comfortable. Sean Currie, the head chef, grew up near the West Coast of Scotland, where he developed his passion for fresh, sustainable, and locally sourced seafood. He has spent most of his 17-year career at the hotel, but during a brief time away he worked at other celebrated Scottish restaurants, including Number 16 in Glasgow’s West End where he earned a Michelin Plate.
The menu at iasg (pronounced ee-usk, the Gaelic word for fish) changes four times a year, led by the availability of shellfish and fish in season. iasg is the perfect stage to showcase Scottish seasonal seafood, prepared with minimal manipulation to let their freshness and flavors shine.
Currie favors oysters and hand-dived scallops, both prominently featured on the menu. The Cumbrae oysters, which come from the Scottish west coast and are raised by a local family since 1995, are simply served with lemon or mignonette preserve their briny flavor.
“Scotland has an extensive list of world-class produce, and at iasg we like to let the produce do the talking,” says Currie. “We source amazing seafood and try to do very little in terms of preparation. Each dish focuses on the champion ingredient. We use Campbells Gold dry-aged beef for our steaks, which is specially selected by their senior butchers then aged for 30-plus days. We keep the cooking simple and treat the produce with the upmost care.”
Depending on the season, Currie sources ingredients like Shetland mussels, Scottish lamb and fresh North Sea cod. Seafood also features in non-traditional preparations such as the signature appetizer of salt cod Scotch egg, served with red pepper purée and crispy fried chorizo, a true highlight and proof of Currie’s inventive dishes and solid techniques.
I’d be remiss not to mention the fantastic breakfast buffet at both restaurants, which includes everything a Full Scottish should have – yes, black pudding and haggis too – as well as smoked Scottish salmon and mackerel, fresh fruit, house pastries and much more.
Aside from wonderful places to stay, we found outstanding restaurants that offer excellent examples of Scottish cuisine at reasonable prices, and we didn’t need months in advance to make a reservation. It’s safe to say that we’ve found ourselves our homes away from home in Scotland.