Ailsa Sheldon tries the tasting menu at Aurora in Leith, a restaurant which is gaining a loyal following for its daring, experimental and well-crafted cuisine.

We arrive at Aurora in a mad out-of-breath rush, garbling apologies. Tables are at 5.15 or 8.15 and I know that by 8pm I’ll be less interested in amuse bouche and more likely to inhale a bread basket – so we’ve come at the end of the work day. Before we’ve even looked at the menu we feel in safe hands. Shoulders retreat from ears, work thoughts diminish, and we relax into the Aurora tasting-menu experience.

The National:

Well-travelled chef-patron Kamil Witek opened Aurora in 2017. It’s been a slow-building word-of-mouth hit since, tucked away on Leith’s yet to be gentrified Great Junction Street. Witek brings influences from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas to his experimental and beautifully crafted dishes. 

We start with an amuse bouche – my favourite is a warm crisp gougère, followed by bouncy garlic focaccia which we dip greedily into whipped ricotta, peppery olive oil and a dusting of dried black olives.

Flickering candles, greenery and warm wood create a relaxed and calming atmosphere that enhances the sensory experience of eating here. A soundtrack of laid-back jazz and chill-hop, is quiet enough to reveal that the couple at the next table are on a disastrous date, but luckily just loud enough that we can’t hear what’s being said. They do at least seem to enjoy the food.

The National:

Our first official course is a raw scallop with a grey swirl of caviar sauce, a sweet earthy celeriac cream, pleasing little pops of lemon that burst in the mouth, and a scattering of crunchy almonds. Grey food is a bold choice, but this kitchen team is unafraid; it’s unexpected and delicious.

A pretty little piece of seabass with a zesty beetroot ‘pico de gallo’ and chicory arrives. The fish has a popcorn crumb and while the flavour doesn’t add much, its textural contrast makes this a joy to eat.

Mushrooms come next, in a rich funghi-filled ragù that’s everything a mushroom dish should aspire to be. It’s buried under a flurry of crisp toasted buckwheat and Parmesan, and dried cherry tomatoes for sweetness. On the side is a tiny porcini milk bread, looking like a classic bakers’ loaf shrunk to Borrower size. While there’s a pleasing porcini flavour to the bread, it’s a touch dry, and an unnecessary companion to my deeply lovely mushrooms.   

The National:

A pasta course reminds me why I would never take my ravenous sons for a tasting menu. They wouldn’t stand for the mere pair of plump tortellini, filled with Jerusalem artichoke and yeast, in an umami broth with top notes of star anise, topped with black truffle and chopped hazelnuts. It’s a glorious dish, and if it wasn’t for all the other courses I could happily eat a whole bowlful. The star anise cuts through the richness in an unexpected but moreish way.

Polenta with a corn succotash is the only course I’m not wild about. I like the raw cauliflower and warming sumac, but to me it jars with the previous dish. Happily, my enthusiasm returns with the cheese.

Cheese ice cream has been creeping onto Scotland’s menus. I’ve found it in a few places (Ballintaggart and Mary’s Milk Bar, if you’re interested). Here a blue-cheese ice cream works like a dream, served with a blob of fig jam and white chocolate in the cone. It’s joined by three other mini cheese plates including a dreamy French goats’ cheese with a tiny olive balloon (I don’t understand it but enjoy it), and a spongy charcoal bread.

The National:

We opt for paired wines, and I recommend you do the same. The bottles we try aren’t on the wine list, and are sourced from small minimal-intervention producers from France, Germany, Spain and Georgia, with many of them organic. A favourite is a 2019 Sorcières Chablis that pairs with the scallops like an old friend. 

Ice cream returns for the final act of our evening, which verges pleasingly on sensory overload. This time it’s shiitake mushroom flavour, which is unashamedly mushroomy and could be a hard-sell despite its creaminess, but the accompanying porcini meringues, chocolate and pistachios turn the whole into an unusual delight.

The National:

Aurora is a wonderful night out for the curious diner. There is kitchen wizardry afoot here, with unconventional ingredient combinations and exceptional cooking and service, and we leave very happily under Aurora’s spell.