Ten Hill Place is a hotel owned by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, one of the world's oldest medical training bodies.
Profits from it are invested back into supporting the charitable activities of the college and its fellows and members. A good part of the premises is Georgian. Were Ten Hill Place in the New Town, it would get more attention, but then the inner reaches of Edinburgh's south side do not have the same cachet. In many ways, I prefer the scruffier streets of the latter, the counter-intuitive change of pace from the bustle of Surgeon's Hall and arterial South Clerk Street, to peaceful Hill Square. Thanks to its proximity to the university and the central Mosque, this neighbourhood has always been cosmopolitan, yet kept a family feel; it's a place where you might hear the sound of children playing in the street.
You could easily walk past Ten Hill Place without spotting its restaurant. In fact, it looks like the anodyne sort of hotel that only has a restaurant because it needs to have one for residents, not because it seriously expects it to do much outside business. It's not like the Galvin brothers' highly successful Brasserie de Luxe at the Caledonian, which has built a strong and faithful following from non-residents, thanks to its outstanding food and service. The best you can say for the dining room at Ten Hill Place is that it's characterless.
I didn't have high expectations of the food at Ten Hill Place, but in the event, was pleasantly surprised. Surgeons generally have enough disposable income to appreciate the finer things in life, and Ten Hill Place has a small, carefully chosen Surgeon's Cellar list of fine wines, which, having reached optimum maturity, are now drinking at their peak. A bottle of 1999 Chateau Chasse-Spleen, for instance, will cost you a surprisingly approachable £38, a Léoville Poyferré 1998 comes in at £65, or if Burgundy is more your thing, then there's a 2008 Gevrey-Chambertin at £52. It would be criminal to serve hand-picked wines like this with mindless food.
You start off with home-baked bread, not chewy sourdough, but lighter, yeastier and crusty in a good way. It came with a fresh herb butter - I stress the word fresh, because so many flavoured butters I encounter are rancid - and a quenelle of gutsy dried tomato, anchovy, and olive tapenade.
I could have made a meal of the Stranraer pork belly, slowly braised in Thistly Cross cider, a model for how this fatty cut should be cooked: the crackling crisp and friable, the strands of meat soft and succulent, the fat nearly dissolving. Rather than doing the obvious thing and reducing the braising juices, the belly was freshened by a vivid oil and herb emulsion, and came with a sweet potato 'hash' aromatic with smoked paprika and blackened, fondant red pepper. A big generous bowlful of pulpy mussels and springy clams had a well-reduced cream and wine sauce, its richness lifted by a distinct lemon presence.
We ate in the restaurant, which was quiet, as opposed to the bar, which was heaving, and perhaps a surge of orders from there caught the kitchen off the hop. Main courses took a little longer than you'd expect to arrive, and the fillet steak more resembled a Sunday roast dinner, pallid rather than seared at its extremities. But it was immaculately tender, its charms shored up further by a piquant peppercorn sauce and a portion of potato tartiflette that would feed two. The coq au vin was half-hearted and not memorable, as though it had been made with tomato, and white, rather than red, wine. The hallmark of a true coq au vin is its wine-dark, purple majesty.
Our desserts were generous, unlike these mean little slices of this and that and for which you increasingly get charged £7. Here was a big-hearted, proper baked cheesecake, with a blushing pink rhubarb sauce and a plump quenelle of white chocolate whipped cream, and a home-made Amaretto ice cream with strata of caramelised walnut punctuating its milky depths.
Good value, honest, unfussy cooking, the restaurant at Ten Hill Place deserves to be busier than it is.