Restaurant Review: Aizle, Edinburgh (November 2019)

This feature will outline chef/owner Stuart Ralston’s background and career as a chef before analysing his cuisine against the criteria Michelin use for awarding a star.

[Chef/Owner of Aizle, Stuart Ralston]

Cooking is in Stuart’s blood. His inspiration to become a chef came from his parents and brother, all of whom were chefs. Growing up in an environment of restaurants and hotels, he started working for his father at the age of 13 as a kitchen porter. From 16, he began to take the industry more seriously, gaining placements in other leading Scottish restaurants. Ian McNaught at Roman Camp and David Williams at Greywalls in Guillane became his teachers and mentors. Stuart also had experience at Inverlochy Castle. Aspirationally, Stuart’s inspiration was Gordon Ramsay, whose blossoming career he avidly followed, with a keen desire to work for him.

This
finally happened when he trialled at Gordon Ramsay at the Connaught. Then came Stuart’s
biggest break when he was transferred to Ramsay’s eponymous two Michelin starred
restaurant in New York. Here, over two years, he was able to work in all
sections, moving from commis chef 3 to senior chef de partie. This huge leap in
his career, in a team who progressed to become top chefs around the world, and
with connections made through Gordon Ramsay, boosted Stuart’s reputation and international
standing. Thus he was offered jobs in two and three star New York restaurants,
settling in a positon at the three Michelin starred Jean-Georges. This was cut
short by the financial crisis, but he gained another top position executive
chef at the exclusive Core Club.

After
five years in the Big Apple, Stuart returned to the UK, being appointed Head
Chef at Lower Slaughter Manor where he quickly gained three AA rosettes and was
inspected for a Michelin star. However, a year later, the company went out of
business, a bitter sweet moment as coincidentally he was offered the Head Chef
position at the opulent, world famous Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados. He stayed
there for three years, part of a culinary team that oversaw five kitchens with
120 chefs and massive revenues.

Having
been away from Scotland for ten years, Stuart decided to make is name in his
homeland, and Edinburgh in particular, where leading chefs such as Tom Kitchin
and Martin Wishart had given the capital gastronomic credibility in the buzzing
restaurant scene.

Passionate about being independent, finances enabled him to open Aizle in Edinburgh’s Southside without the need for investors. “Humble, small and low key” – the opposite of Sandy Lane – it made a quick impact as a tasting menu only restaurant, the first in Edinburgh. Over five and a half years he has gained a large and loyal clientele, demonstrating that a no-choice menu can have wide appeal if done well. Consequently, amongst other accolades, Aizle has been voted fifth best restaurant in the UK and second best in Edinburgh by Trip Advisor. After three years of inclusion in the Good Food Guide, the 2020 edition has finally appreciated the hard work and incremental changes it has made over time, awarding the highest mark so far of 6/10.

Aizle’s pastel
blue frontage with large picture windows displays an ingenious nature inspired
graphic design which incorporates the restaurant’s name above the entrance. Inside,
the shades of blue, grey and cream give a warm, comforting feel. Décor in the
high ceiling room is kept to a minimum, the main features being two blackboards
listing the ingredients of the dishes on the menu. Clearly, the focus is on the
food, with few distractions. Even the menu cannot be read until the end of the
meal, when it is handed to the diner. Instead, the engaging and knowledgeable
staff, who may include the person who cooked it, present and explain each dish
as it arrives.

The
rest of this feature will analyse Stuart Ralston’s cuisine against aspects of
the five criteria used by Michelin for awarding a Michelin star: cooking techniques
employed; balance and harmony in flavour; consistency across the menu and over
time; provenance of ingredients; and value for money

Stuart uses mainly classical techniques with
modern flavour combinations. A simple chocolate mousse is executed in a
classical way involving emulsification and is often paired with salty, umami
Japanese elements. Aged beef with cherry mustard, involving barbequing and
grilling on a Japanese grill to produce a simplistic beautiful flavour has been
skilfully employed, hence the dish is available often throughout the year.
Conversely, a summer dish of Cod with sweet corn succotash with katsuobushi sauce,
involves the classical techniques of fermentation and pureeing.

Sous vide is not employed on a day to day
basis.  It is never used to cook fish. Game
birds are roasted whole. Cooking meat and fish classically in a pan is the
preferred classical method. Confidence, and actually being present to ensure
precise timing, is essential for success. As Stuart is present at every
service, consistency is guaranteed. He agrees that sous vide can be employed
successfully in high level restaurants but can be misused in lesser
establishments.

Whilst balance
and harmony are taken into account in the creation of a new dish and menu,
Stuart believes some ingredients in a dish may be (say) dominantly rich or
acidic with good reason, to allow the flavours and profile to be bold. This
does not mean a dish cannot be in equilibrium.

Consider
the first, labour intensive, snack on the tasting menu: fresh, very rich goat’s
curd encased in a sweet, delicate beetroot glass tube, with an acidic gel in
the middle which helps balance the other two elements. Pine nuts add an
interesting harmonious background. Essentially sweet and rich, a combination
common with cheese, such as cheese and chutney, this snack is a successful “one
bite, one shot opener which grabs the diner’s attention at the start of the
meal.”

At the other end of the meal is chocolate mousse. The main ingredient
from the celebrated Norman chocolatier, Michel Cluizel, has a malty, salty,
caramel quality. It rests on Black sugar from Okinawa reduced right down with Scottish
whiskey. A wafer thin nut praline is topped with
Kinako ice cream of roasted soya bean flower. These elements give a quite tonal
and therefore balanced character, with the combination of chocolate, nuts, milk
and salt, giving a balanced, rich and comforting feel.

Harmony and balance across the whole menu is also carefully considered in
terms of tastes, textures, temperatures and range of ingredients. Dishes also progress
from small to large.

The second snack, sweet potato with teryaki and sesame is hot and fried, comforting and warming, with a very different robust profile.

By contrast, the third snack, a crab tartlet with caviar and apple is luxurious with delicately thin filo pastry

The first course always highlights a
vegetable, in this case a super comforting and fragrantly luxurious dish of
girolles served with ricotta tortellini, aged parmesan and Italian black
truffle.

Bread is served as the next course to balance
the previous smaller snacks and as a prelude to the more substantial fish and
meat courses.  Served by the pastry chef,
the mother base of the sourdough named Roger is four and a half years old. The
warm rolls are flavoured with caramelised onion, lemon thyme and black garlic
and served with cultured butter made in house.

The fish
and meat courses flow naturally in succession:

Isle of
Gigha halibut with Shetland mussels and Ken Holland broccoli, employs prime
ingredients precisely timed to maximise their inherent delicate flavours

A game
dish features breast of wild partridge topped with smoked sausage haggis and
served with cabbage, Pommes Anna and a blackberry gel captured more robust,
earthy flavours and textures.

Vacherin
Mont d’Or baked with Edinburgh blossom honey, and served with quince purée and
homemade focaccia provides a stimulating savoury and sweet, hot and cold cheese
course

To
balance this, a pre dessert of sea buckthorn (reduced down with sugar and
carrot juice to moderate it is intense sharpness), yogurt and lemon balm is
suitably cold and acidic to act as a palate cleanser before the final rich
dessert.

A rich
chocolate mousse, described above, and dainty petit fours complete this
sensational menu.

Consistency
at a basic level involves everything being weighed: for instance fish portions
at 65 grams, bread rolls at 55 grams, tartlets have the same amount of crab and
are of the same size and shape.

Consistency
in standards is achieved by ensuring each chef cooks at the same station in each
of the four open evenings, Wednesday to Saturday. Changes only occur when
Stuart is convinced mastery has been achieved in his or her section. Closing
three days a week ensures staff are not exhausted, retaining their energy, passion
and enthusiasm. The team is energised as they feel ownership of the restaurant as
part of a team with important responsibilities. Everyone takes holidays at the
same time to negate any problems if Stuart is absent. Overseeing the service
each day, Stuart himself ensures that no dishes leave the passe without his
approval.

Consistency
with suppliers is achieved by good relations built over 10 to 15 years. They
know the high quality Stuart demands. Only big fish are bought for flavour and
only wild fish and game are sourced. Daily orders are checked to ensure quality,
size and presentation..

At Aizle, Scotland’s bounteous larder is
exploited to the full for its seasonal menus: Gigha halibut, Shetland mussels,
wild partridge, girolles, blackberries, sea buckthorn and blossom honey all
feature in the autumn menu. Other top quality and seasonal ingredients are sourced
from notable suppliers: broccoli from specialist grower Ken Holland’s farm in
Northumberland; Aged Parmesan and black truffle from Italy; and Vacherin Mont
d’Or and Martin Cluizel chocolate from France. Given Stuart’s extensive
knowledge of Far Eastern ingredients, Katsuobushi, Okinawa black sugar and Kinako,
roasted soya bean flour, are sourced from Japan. As mentioned above, daily
deliveries are thoroughly checked for quality, size and presentation.

Stuart
sees value for money partly in terms of how people feel when they leave a
restaurant: have they got something for their money; have they been looked
after; have they been impressed with the standard of ingredients? Examining the
list above, wild fish and game, caviar, truffles, expensive French cheese and
chocolate are quality, luxury ingredients that come at a cost which most guests
appreciate. That many are repeat customers, some having eaten at Aizle 40 to 50
times over five years, is testament to its success in this respect. From an
economics point of view, there has to be value in the meal, as certain costs
have to be achieved, these being pushed to the limit in buying the best yet
keeping the restaurant sustainable. Overall, a huge effort is made at Aizle,
including learning from previous mistakes, to achieve value for money at its
price point.

Having cooked for 23 years, Stuart’s energies at the age of 36 are still undiminished. Indeed, August this year saw the opening of his second restaurant, Noto, in Thistle Street. More casual than Aizle, and open all week, it has a neighbourhood feel. Serving a small plates menu with Asian influences, Noto has received good reviews, keeping its strong team constantly busy serving 48 covers with 110 on Saturdays. Stuart aims to keep cooking at Aizle, but splits his time between the two restaurants, empowering managers and senior staff, who have been loyal to the company. In the long term, perhaps another restaurant on the lines of Noto may be envisaged.

[Richard (chef de partie), Danielle (chef de partie) Stuart Ralston (chef owner), Tobias (pastry)]

Aizle, which means a “burning coal, a glowing hot ember, a spark” will undoubtedly continue to burn bright. Stuart’s investment in people, at Aizle and at Noto, has clearly paid dividends. With its team of four chefs and four front of house serving fifteen tables, Aizle has gone from strength to strength.  It will remain Stuart’s main focus of attention, as he cooks here each service. Fine Dining Guide enjoyed its meal and meeting with Stuart and will look forward to the restaurant’s increased recognition in the national restaurant guides. A Michelin star cannot be too far away.

from Fine Dining Guide