Tanya Gold

Cooking witches

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The Witchery is almost a themed restaurant; it is a weeping medieval tenement, just below Edinburgh Castle, which looks like a blackened tooth. Inside, it has wood panelling, wall paintings, red velvet table clothes and an enormous silvery head of Dionysus, which the waiter says is made of polystyrene. Upstairs are the sort of suites you can imagine Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel bouncing up and down in, dressed as Robespierre and Voltaire, but because it is August and the Fringe is in town, they are all booked up with writhing comedy agents plotting things. It is all very The Ninth Gate. (The Ninth Gate, should you be ignorant of late Polanski, is a film about a demonic book, starring Johnny Depp.)

The waiter says it is called the Witchery because people used to look out of the windows and watch witches (a medieval term for an unmarried woman with a sex drive, or any woman who did something interesting) be thrown off the castle rock, after which those left alive probably ate something sweet. I have no idea if this is true but Edinburgh Old Town, a labyrinth of dripping cellars, bucket shops selling tartans, and, in August, comedians wearing fancy dress, loves to weave myths. I have no idea if anything about this town is true, except the drink and the misogyny, because witch-tossing never dies.

I pass tourists heading for the Military Tattoo, Hugh Grant saying ‘Hi’ to fans in pale shoes with a ridiculously deep, posh voice — ‘Is he playing Hugh Grant?’ asks A — and a woman dressed as a shark. She may be an eccentric, or a comic, or merely a shark fan. Anyway, we enter what feels like a warm, Monarch of the Glen-themed womb — a descent, of course, but a good one, because there are pies, not Satan, at the bottom. It reminds me of the Castel Dracula hotel in Romania, which is essentially an Ibis with neon crosses and chefs dressed as vampires.

The menu is vast, brown and solid, a homage to big animals — cows, pigs — and small fish: oysters, clams, crabs. A has warm truffled asparagus with a Parmesan biscuit, pleasingly solid; I have a superb cauliflower risotto, which is almost sweet. The cauliflower bhajis are dry, and could be used as weapons to throw at the long-dead witches, or the monsters who damned them for being hot, or just odd, but never mind. The entrées are trifles, so to speak; in a restaurant like this, you only await the flesh.

Mine is beef, of course, a huge, bloody slab of sirloin on the bone, served, rather oddly, on a wooden board, maybe a chopping board. I wish restaurants would go back to plates. There was a reason they were popular. It is medium-rare — soft, sweet, dense, with a wonderful crust of fat. It is excellent and, at £39, it should be.

A, who loves fairytales and meat, has Three Little Pigs — a pork cutlet, some belly, a trotter stuffed with black pudding and a triangular piece of crackling so crispy we fight for it. The mashed potato is a wonder — I imagined Scotland would do good mashed potato, and it does — although the triple cooked chips are over-fried, and they know it. (It is always gratifying when potatoes are self-aware.) The vegetables, which come in what look like tiny cauldrons, made by tiny witches, are less good. The carrots are slightly lumpy, and the mushrooms lie in charmless, under-seasoned piles. We abandon them, because the Tattoo is matching past and we stand in the doorway and watch the pipers play ‘Scotland the Brave’.

Inside, pudding is a snog — marmalade brûlée, lemon cheesecake and Tipsy Laird, a strawberry trifle that is almost all whisky; quite soon, I am pissed. The Witchery wants to be the Marquis de Sade’s loo, and this is fine.

The Witchery, Castlehill, Edinburgh, EH1 2NF, tel: 0131 225 5613.