Norn is the name of an ancient Scottish language or rather a form of Norse once spoken in Orkney and Shetland. It is also the singular for one of the Norse fates, the norns, three women who sit at the roots of the Ygdrasil the world tree spinning, measuring and cutting your life thread. It was them I thought of when I first heard the name. The associations of fairy tale and Scandinavia meant I immediately wanted to visit. Imagine my joy when I was asked to review.
What did I expect? Clean, classic design with a Scandinavian flavour. Great ingredients treated with respect. What did I get?
Norn is on Henderson Street where, not that long ago, The Plumed Horse had its premises. The space is lovely: a classical high-ceilinged Edinburgh room painted pale grey, clean walls hung with monochromatic, nature-based prints. Wooden floors, blond wood chairs and tables make for a comfortable and welcoming environment. The kitchen is open so you can peek in if you’re curious.
My companion and I felt at home at once. We started the evening with a martini because I saw one I couldn’t turn down: a mixture of gin, vodka and vermouth it was the kind of high-booze content cocktail I adore. It was crisp, well-balanced with a good lemon bite. Clean and crisp, like the decor. You’ll soon see a theme develop.
Sustainable, ethical, local
Norn has a special approach to food. They change menu regularly, depending on what their producers say is at its best, and what they’ve foraged. They use producers that are sustainable and ethical, and enjoy the challenge of not necessarily knowing this week what they’ll be serving next week.
The set menu offers up to seven dishes and you have either four or seven. We went for the full feast. If you have special dietary requirements, let them know in advance so they can cater for them. You can have matching wines with each dish: we decided to curb our greed and share a bottle of Goisot Exogyra Virgula, a full-flavoured, minerally white named after a fossil found in the soil where the vines grow.
Norn makes its own bread, a sourdough made with beremeal (made from a particular variety of barley cultivated on Orkney and a few other islands). It is wonderfully good, especially warm from the oven, served with cultured butter. (A word of advice: seven dishes, even moderately sized ones, is a good amount of food. Don’t overdo the bread, no matter how delicious and great for mopping up juices. You need space for the main. I speak from experience.)
The taste of sun-ripened tomatoes
Our snack was a tomato tartare with capers and wild garlic flowers. I looked at my companion and said “Wow. This tastes like real tomato.” Luckily, he knew what I meant. It has the flavour of a sun-ripened tomato, picked fragrant from the vine. It was very good and made us eager to try more.
A dish of asparagus, peas and sorrel was wonderfully summery, with the crunch and flavour of green. It worked well with the bread, the earthy flavour of sourdough wonderful against the sunny flavours of asparagus and peas.
Next came grilled mackerel with carrot, cucumber, caviar and bitter leaves with sweet cicely pesto. Elm seeds in the salad reminded me of my childhood when I’d pick them off the trees and eat them for a snack. Mackerel can be fatty and over-powering, but with the leaves and greens it was light and refreshing.
Our wine was meant to match the baked potato served with crab (I love crab!) and buttermilk foam. It worked beautifully, the acidity picking up the buttermilk, the mineral overtones working well with the crab.
Foraged sea-veg and fungi
The fish course was hake, perfectly cooked, served on chard, topped with kale and sea vegetables. It was served with a light dashi. It was a beautiful dish, both in the looking and the eating. The sea veg added interest, little pops of salt and acid, the chard was deliciously crunchy and fresh in flavour.
The mains finished with chicken served with pheasant back fungus and kavolo nero. The fungus was firm and meaty, the chicken tender, the whole dressed with a flavourful sauce. I’m not usually one for chicken, but when it’s this good, it’s wonderful.
A pinch of salt enhances the flavour
With the seven course meal, you get two desserts. The first one has had a mixed reception: woodruff, ground ivy, popcorn and rhubarb. What’s controversial? The rhubarb is salted. Noticeably. I liked it. We had this dish with a glass of asti, recommended by our wine waiter, which sweetened the overall mouthful delightfully, but even before I tried the sweet wine with it, I liked the overall effect. Salt and rhubarb works. The caramel popcorn adds sweetness and texture and makes this a fun dish to eat.
The very final dish was more traditional, strawberries dried, macerated and fresh, served with water mint, on top of a set vanilla cream. I nearly blurted “wow, this tastes like real strawberry!” because, again, the flavour was so right. Norn knows how to get the best out of their ingredients, making sure that you taste what’s on the plate, teasing out new aspects of the flavour.
Come on a journey
When we finally said goodbye and wandered out into the gentle Edinburgh evening, I knew I would sleep well and dream yummy dreams. I had enjoyed a culinary journey of the Scottish landscape with good conversation, great wine and creative, thoughtful cooking. As the seasons change and the chefs try new flavour and texture combinations, new dishes make it onto the menu. When I visited, Norn had been trading for three weeks and I had menu #10. Going to Norn will always be a different delicious journey.
50-54 Henderson Street
Telephone: 0131 629 2525
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Caroline dined at the invitation of Norn.
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