Aizle (rhymes with Hazel) in Edinburgh has opened in a burst of originality.
Well, sort of. When you sit down at your table you're presented with a list of 20 or so ingredients, and asked to flag up any that you don't fancy. Then, so the story goes, the chef composes the dinner around those ingredients that get the thumbs up.
If you're a meat and two veg conservative, then some of the ingredients might stretch you a bit. Carlingford oysters, veal tongue, sea lettuce (basically a seaweed) are a bit outré for some palates, and others are bordering on arcane, unless you happen to be a foraging globetrotter.
Sweet Cicely (a sweet, slightly aniseed-like herb) and pink purslane (a salad leaf), do not feature in the common man's food lexicon, and neither - unless you're Japanese - does togarashi (seven-spice powder), or chawanmushi (savoury egg custard). These are interlaced with more familiar ingredients: halibut, sea trout, Yorkshire rhubarb, Wye Valley asparagus, 'heritage' carrots, and hogget.
If you're struggling to keep up, the latter is lamb that's at least a year old, so its flavour is full and distinctive, not puny, like new season's spring lamb.
One suspects that the chef effectively cooks a no-choice, fixed dinner, keeping dishes in reserve to cater for the awkward mob who opt-out from this and that. For vegans and vegetarians, many ingredients on our list would have been off-limits. Dietetically speaking, although Aizle makes good use of foraged, wild, and cultivated plant-based foods, it is firmly plugged into the Paleo/primal camp, so animal foods do figure prominently.
In the wrong hands, this menu ploy might be little more than a fashionable excuse for a rarified, expensive, fancy-pants, and potentially dictatorial set menu, but from the moment the bread arrived, it was clear to me that Aizle is an honest enterprise, very committed to its ideals.
Your £35 meal starts off with first-class sourdough, made by Andante, a local artisan bakery, which comes with good butter, and labneh (Middle Eastern-style white cheese) with a sprinkling of zaatar (crushed herb, sesame and nuts) on top of it, both homemade. The dinner is described as four-course, but by the time you include all the 'free' bits and bobs, it feels more like an eight-course job, and unimpeachable value for a feast predicated on thoughtful sourcing, refined cooking, and beautiful presentation. All the money spent by Aizle seems to be on ingredients, not the decor, which is cheaply stylish in that trendy make-do-and-mend way.
Everything you get to eat at Aizle is easy on the eye, intriguing, sometimes playful, and almost Japanese in its delicacy and neatness. One dish we had was presented in a hollowed-out eggshell nestling on a bed of straw, in a cosy cocotte. I seem to remember it being a rather special ragout of lamb, featuring a crunchy little dice of meat, topped with ricotta, the whole thing infused with wild garlic. If this sounds vague, bear in mind that there's no written menu as such, so you have to be paying attention to the verbal introduction to each dish, as well as enjoying eating it.
The chef uses texture contrasts to great effect. So soft, raw trout and velvety avocado puree are teamed up with an irregularly shaped rice wafer, so crisp it might shatter on sight.
The slurpy fleshiness of oysters and the filmy smoothness of seaweed are foiled with a cap of minutely diced potato, fried to a golden crunch. Another very apparent strength of the kitchen here is its timing. All the meat we had - veal tongue, pork - was positively molten; it more or less dissolved in the mouth and tasted intensely of itself. Wild sea trout, which came with juicy asparagus, wild garlic flowers, jewel-like salmon roe, was perfectly 'à point', still moistly translucent in the middle, under a well-seasoned, crisped-up skin.
My top taste? Probably the Earl Grey grapefruit pate de fruit, because of its sharp, full-bodied taste. To my tastebuds, the one shortcoming of Aizle is that its flavour palette is a bit bland; too natural, if that's possible. I like bolder more vibrant tastes, but that's a style thing.