On a chilly November afternoon, a group of bloggers with slivers of magenta-hued salmon, scoops of spiced haddock risotto and deep fried baubles of mac and cheese bites on their plates began to discuss Aberdeen’s dining scene. Every so often wine expert Elias would pepper the conversation with tasting notes for the wines we drank or head chef Chris would place more plates in front of us to scoop, dip or pick at from wooden boards, but largely the discussion remained. Another Aberdeen restaurant, so full of promise had closed. Weeks after the brunch we’d hear of another, then another, a city closing in on itself and beloved places which held first date memories, anniversary dinner recollections or simply full bellies and happy faces were now gone. All we could do as a collective would be to vow to encourage others to eat locally, pursue the newest openings and chose independents over chains.
In a way it was what brought us all together that day. Rye & Soda, a place which has held my heart ever since they served C and I dinnerplate-sized yorkies with bourbon glazed ham and beetroot mash to cure our post-Christmas night out hangover, was having a bit of a refresh. Chris Tonner, well known in the city for the likes of Adelphi Kitchen and menus for some of my favourite restaurants in town, was back to take on R&S’s menu as head chef. Announcing the beloved Adelphi was to close alongside new barbeque joint Cue was a blow to the independent dining scene, yet it wasn’t long before Chris donned his chef whites to help curate a new menu for the brunch-focused restaurant at The Academy. One gets the sense that Chris is happiest cooking rather than stuck behind a laptop, and he appears passionate and engaged when discussing the smallest details in the dishes he presents to us – the tomatoes delicately placed on the bruschetta are locally-farmed using hydroponics, whereby plants are grown in or around water rather than soil.
The menu’s new direction really hones in on local produce, the gin used to cure the salmon comes from Porter’s, the first to be partly distilled in Aberdeen in a century and Katy’s Eggs are scattered throughout the menu (the ancient grain porridge with an egg and crispy chicken skin sounds particularly intriguing). Other dishes added to an already groaning table (later taken outside for us to pick at) include a delicious cous cous salad with lambs leaf, tzatziki, pomegranate and gorgeous crispy onions, stuffed potato skins with roasted tomato mayo, mini sliders with beef from Davidson’s the butcher and those delicious mac and mozzarella bites with smoky bbq ketchup. I chose to forgo the make your own Bloody Mary stand, but everyone seemed delighted with the chance to pile peppers, tomatoes, bacon dust and celery stalks into splashes of vodka and carrot and tomato juices. With whispers it could become a regular fixture it would surely be a hit with a weekend brunching crowd.
And so we tumbled into the courtyard into the brisk November air, as Elias talked us through a Elki PX and a Dry Riseling, the latter sweet and full of honey notes before my personal favourite, a sweetly spiced Passimiento red which I would have gladly nursed all afternoon. Chris brought us sweet little mini muffins, sadly a little on the dry side yet forgivable after such a near-perfect feast. So we chatted, about the restaurants we missed, the ones we’d heard were in trouble and what really could be done to help Aberdeen’s hospitality industry after a black cloud of a downturn loomed over the city around two years ago and refused to move. There is no easy answer. Perhaps its effort, both on the part of the diner and the restaurant, the former to go out and the latter to keep them coming back. To eat smart, to give new businesses a chance and to eat outwith our comfort zones so that the restaurant scene in the city remains rich and peppered with choice. I believe the fortunes can be reversed and it all starts with a little passion in the kitchen to keep those diners returning. For those cheesy mac and cheese bites, that rainbow-coloured salmon and beautiful unctuous risotto, Rye & Soda will certainly be on my ‘return’ list.
I was a guest at Rye & Soda, The Academy, Belmont Street for their blogger brunch but all views, heart eye emojis at the mac and cheese bites and desire for bigger glasses of Passimiento are my own. If you’re interested in eating locally and independently in Aberdeen, Foodie Quine has an excellent list of places to visit over here.