Unfiltered: Stuart Skea

Lyla in Edinburgh is the fourth restaurant from Stuart Ralston, the chef-owner of Aizle, Noto and Tipo. Alongside a ten-course, seafood-led tasting menu, the sommelier of the restaurant collection, Stuart Skea authors the liquid assets. He talks to Douglas Blyde about his bittersweet return to 3 Royal Terrace, what to pair with trout charcuterie, and his animosity towards English Bacchus.

What does it mean to be back on the site formerly home to Paul Kitching’s 21212 Restaurant?

It’s a bittersweet experience, given the circumstances. My first Head Sommelier job was at 21212 back in 2012, and I enjoyed two wonderful years there. It helped to shape my career and will always remain a very important part of who I am. Life can take strange turns, but at the same time nice to be back on familiar ground. Knowing the high standards which 21212 set and maintained over a long period provides the motivation to continue to strive for excellence and push forward.

Does the memory of Paul remain?

Absolutely, he is an ever-constant presence – 21212 still operates the rooms in this beautiful Georgian townhouse, so there are lots of visual reminders and the presence of the wonderful Katie O’Brien, Chef’s partner. We are striving to do the very best we can at Lyla which I think is the best thing that we can do to honour Paul’s memory – keeping the place full of life, light, old-fashioned hospitality and excellent cooking.

What restaurant lists do you look after?

I’m currently based full-time at Lyla and developed the list for here as well as the lists at Aizle and Tipo, and in the new year I am going to work closely with the team at Noto to redevelop the list.

Where did you work before?

At Fhior Restaurant, formerly Norn for five years. Prior to that I was at the Champany Inn for three years, 21212 for two years and Prestonfield House for four years.

What does your surname mean?

“Skea” is a Toponymic (place) name hailing from Orkney, where my father’s side of the family comes from.

Where in Lyla is the cellar?

We are very fortunate at Lyla to have four full-size Eurocaves on the ground floor entrance, for red and white with a purpose-built cellar in the basement with a large capacity and a constant, cool temperature.

Describe your list at Lyla?

Classical, Eurocentric, with a modern twist. Lots of good Burgundy, wines from Piedmont, South Africa, and Galicia.

Do you include sake?

At the moment we are using sake as a wine pairing, but I have plans to expand this in the future and include some on the list, probably by the glass.

What has been a startlingly good food and wine match at the venue?

For me the pairing of Chawanmushi – steamed, savoury Japanese egg custard made with a dashi stock with our home-cured trout charcuterie, ponzu and smoked potato pair with 2019 Tempe Gewürztraminer Mambourg, a very complex wine which exemplifies all that is great about this grape, yet with a mineral freshness. A tricky dish to match, but this pairing truly sings.

What percentage of guests opt for the full drinks pairing with the tasting menu?

At the moment, it’s around 70% as we are new and people are testing us out, but I expect that to reduce over time.

What are your finest pours via Coravin?

Just a small initial still selection, being Christophe Vaudoisey Volnay 1er Cru Clos de Chene 2019, Meyer-Fonne Kaeferkopff Grand Cru Riesling 2018, and Royal Tokaji 6 Puttonyos Gold Label 2017. As noted above, nearly everyone opts for the wine pairing without so much as a glance at the wine list. We are now open for lunch, so I intend to put some interesting things on by the glass – watch this space! Meanwhile, we are using the Coravin Sparkling System to pour Krug, amongst others, from our Champagne Trolley and plan to expand this.

What is your favourite table in the house?

Table six which affords a great view of the whole dining room and restaurant operation.

What wine style could you happily live without?

Lots to mention – Coffee Pinotage, Pinotage in general, Bourbon aged red wine, full throttle Barossa Shiraz. Anything over-extracted, over-oaked, Garagiste, Parker-ised – a style thankfully on the wane for a few years now– but pretty much all Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Especially, especially Mousy Natural Wine – not a style per se, but frighteningly common and on the rise it seems… Unforgivable. English Bacchus deserves an honourable mention for being more unpleasant and cat-pissy than Kiwi Sauvignon.

What ingredient do you abhor?

Meadowsweet – soapy, blowsy nonsense. Tonka Bean – an ingredient beloved by Chefs only.

What wine does chef-patron, Stuart Ralston best enjoy?

A bit of everything especially good Champagne and great white Burgundy.

What music is played at the venue?

Chilled ambient beats.

How do you keep hold of sommeliers?

Keep the menu fresh and interesting, changing it regularly. Give leeway for GP margins for interesting wines. Allow time off to go and travel.

What has been an embarrassing service mistake?

Nothing too embarrassing. Try as you might some people are impossible to get a read on regarding taste…

How many coffees do you drink per day?

Very hard to say! I don’t keep track and it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be – circa six? It depends if it is a lunch and dinner shift or dinner only. I always start the day with a coffee at home, usually a single-estate coffee from AeroPress.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Invisibility.

Tell us something surprising about yourself?

I certainly didn’t come from a wine or gastronomic background: I grew up on fish fingers, crispy pancakes, Potato waffles, baked beans and oven chips.

What do you do in your time off?

I especially enjoy road cycling and cycled Teide in Tenerife during our January break. And cooking, baking, and making bread.

What is your next restaurant conquest, in terms of a destination meal you would like to experience?

I’d love to go to Frantzen in Stockholm.

Who from history would you prefer to share a treasured bottle with?

Napoleon, a man of impeccable taste. We could drink Vin de Constance from his era.

LYLA – 3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh, EH7 5AB; 0131 285 8808; [email protected]; lylaedinburgh.co.uk

This article originally appeared on the drinks business.

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