The mystery object, a crisp, greyish wafer dusted in sweet white powder, was passed back and forward between us. To our growing frustration, neither of us could identify it, though the taste was intense and maddeningly familiar. Could it be parsnip? Dried fish skin, possibly? Defeated, we asked the waiter for a formal ID. Of course! It was a Savoy cabbage leaf, dried and coated in vanilla sugar. If, as Shirley Conran claimed, life is too short to stuff a mushroom, what kind of maniac would want to subject a cabbage leaf to such treatment? And why?
The answer lies in the fathomless imagination of Paul Kitching, whose madcap experimentation at Juniper in Altrincham established him as the North's answer to Heston Blumenthal. Last year he moved to Edinburgh and opened 21212, a restaurant with rooms on the edge of the New Town. It was a bold move. At Juniper, Kitching served feasts of up to 30 tiny dishes, which might include beef with lemon curd, or cheddar cheese ice cream. Prudent Edinburgh, by contrast, is hardly known for its embrace of all things indulgent and playful.
Only three other tables were occupied on a midweek lunchtime, a few days after 21212 won its first Michelin star. The high-ceilinged Georgian dining-room, all fancy plasterwork and shimmering, muslin-draped walls, feels deluxe but quirky; diners sit side-by-side on curvy, asymmetric banquettes, trying to ignore the fact that the carpet is covered in huge images of moths. To one end, in a glassed-in show kitchen, Kitching, whippet-thin and intense, presides over a black-clad brigade who easily outnumber the diners.
Our meal began with some extraordinary curry-scented bread, packed with fruit, nuts and seeds. Apart from the fact that it was bright yellow, it was the nearest thing to normal food we were going to see for the next hour or so.
An unusual menu structure, based football-style on the 2-1-2-1-2 formation, doesn't apply at lunchtimes, when diners can opt for the conventional 1-1-1 formula. The food, though, is far from conventional. I was pretty sure I'd ordered a chicken salad but what arrived was a beautiful and colourful mystery tour of a plateful, in which morsels of chicken breast, served disconcertingly pink, played but a walk-on part. Under a dried vanilla pod and a vivid green foamed sauce, I found what might have been Jerusalem artichoke marinated in turmeric, some kind of coleslaw-like treatment of celeriac, and other unidentifiable items. When I came to a plain slice of tomato, I almost sobbed with relief.
My guest Fiona's creamy risotto of Gruyère cheese also came with a full supporting cast, including confit garlic, caviar and that headily sweet mystery cabbage leaf. She described it, not altogether approvingly, as "an assault on the taste buds".
Main courses, for all their intense hits of flavour and textural contrasts, were again stimulating and frustrating in equal measure. Like a Generation Game contestant trying to keep up with the conveyor belt, I identified sweet potato, chorizo, hazelnuts and dried basil leaves as components in my sea bass dish. From the menu I see that only four or five other elements eluded me.
Fiona's beef, pink and tender, came with Brazil nuts, and saffron-scented beads of fregola which eluded her wide-toothed fork. Some elements, such as baby sweetcorn, seemed to be included just because they looked nice. Others, like a small cake of curried puréed parsnip, were so maddeningly delicious she wanted more of them. "I'm sure I just ate a minced pie!" she yelped at one point, and sure enough, I found it on the menu later, "a sea-salted sweet minced meat tart".
Food like this is like gastronomic speed-dating. Some bits you like, some bits you don't, but it all goes by so fast you can't quite get to grips with it. To me, the dishes never quite came together; what should have been a party was more like a lot of singletons standing around, unwilling to start dancing.
A mouthful of coconut and porridge milk, poured from a cow-shaped jug into a paper thimble, set us up for desserts. Winter trifle, under a slightly Nesquik-ish pink foam, and baked egg custard, which came with a fine-dining version of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, were more coherent, and therefore more satisfying, than what had gone before.
Service from a young and friendly team, is paced fast enough to suit business lunchers. Our waiter was refreshingly free of the Moonie-ish zeal that can surround perfectionists like Kitching. Explaining that coffee would be served in paper cups to stay hot longer, he added, with the hint of an eye-roll, "It's just one of Paul's things."
Kitching has claimed that his Edinburgh move would see him putting aside his youthful excesses to focus on a more serious style of cooking. But I imagine his eccentricities will still prove challenging to many Edinburgh diners. The Michelin men may be impressed; but it's the Morningside ladies he really needs to win over.
21212, 3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh (0131-523 1030)
Three-course lunch £35 per head plus wine and service. Five-course dinner £65 a head
Tipping policy: "No service charge. All tips go to the staff"Reuse content