Small plate dining has reached Orkney and the locals are loving it
New restaurant Twenty One is blowing people's minds in Kirkwall with tiny dishes
Do you remember when Russell Norman was crowned the "new king of Soho dining" by the UK press not long after launching his restaurant Polpo in September 2009? No, neither do we, but it proves how long small plate dining has been part of the food scene in London.
Polpo arrived as a reinvention of the Venetian bacaro, complete with a cicchetti menu of tastebud popping small plates. What's this, we cried — tapas, but wait Italian tapas?! Russell then brought us the scruffy NY-inspired diner Spuntino, also in Soho, and also serving small plates, but American-style. Our minds were blown once again.
A super-casual style of dining was defined and subsequently swept the UK. Rival operators busily copied the feel: no bookings, dressed-down staff, wine in tumblers, distressed interiors. But the concept has successfully missed one pocket of the UK, until now.
Small plates have finally reached Kirkwall, the the largest town of Orkney, an archipelago to the north of mainland Scotland, thanks to chef Gary Sutherland and his business partner Neil Stevenson. The duo decided: now is the time, we need more than just main courses and delivered on this with their restaurant Twenty One.
And so in July 2019, after months of planning and many small plate tasting sessions "down south", the duo opened the doors of their casual small plate dining restaurant in Kirkwall.
Food Tribe caught up with head chef and co-owner Gary to talk about the challenges of introducing this new concept to Orkney's food scene, the incredible produce on and around the island and why it's all going down surprisingly well with the locals.
Inside Twenty One, named after it's number on Albert Street in Kirkwall
What sparked the idea to bring small plates to Orkney?
A couple of years ago I was on holiday down south and we stumbled across a little restaurant doing small plates. I’d never eaten that way before. It wasn’t an upper-class restaurant vibe, but it wasn’t a casual pub either, it was somewhere in-between. I just loved the whole idea of it. I came home and Neil said he loved the concept too, and so we decided to give it a shot.
Why did you feel it was the right time to take the plunge?
For so many years the food scene in Orkney has been very samey and we'd fallen behind a lot. You get a lot of classic pub grub and hotel food here. It's by no means bad, just very predictable. Small plate dining is nothing new down south but its completely new for Orkney. No one was doing it, which I think is nuts. We thought let’s go for it and we've been hooching since! (*busy).
What concerns did you have before opening Twenty One?
We didn’t want to be seen as a novelty act. We wanted to prove a point right from day one that we're serious about what we do and about moving Orkney forward a bit. We put a lot of work into our preparations and training our staff. I think the customers see that and appreciate it.
Meatballs at Twenty One
Word of mouth must be gold on an island with a population of roughly 10,000?
Definitely, there are restaurants that opened in Kirkwall with too few staff and people said: “oh the service is too slow," and they struggled to get out of that hole. We had to hit the ground running, because word travels fast around here. But we put our trust in our customers that they are open and ready to try new things and we 100% understand this won’t be for everybody.
Do you focus on Orkney produce on your menus?
Yes, I write our menus based on Orkney produce. We’re lucky in Orkney that all our beef and lamb is exceptional and so is our seafood. That’s showcased as far down as London where restaurants are using Orkney scallops, crab and North Ronaldsay Mutton. James Cochran who won the Great British Menu in 2018 has been pushing Orkney scallops a lot. The trouble is our produce is in such high demand we often can’t ever get hold of it in Orkney!
What stumbling blocks have you faced so far?
We change out menu every eight weeks and it gets a 75% revamp each time. For us it’s all about an intense punch of flavour and freshness you only get some small plates. I’m experimenting constantly! We have had a few folk who are a bit disappointed when a dish has been taken off the menu. When they ask why it's gone, we tell them it might come back in the future. It keeps people guessing and we like to keep our customers on their toes.
Orkney scallops at Twenty One
Do you have a favourite dish or ingredient at Twenty One?
I don’t like using fillet or sirloin steak or the best cuts of lamb. I prefer experimenting with the cheaper cuts, which have a lot of flavour and make things more exciting for the customer who can try something new and surprising. I don’t want anything on our menu that you’d get down the road. My favourites are the seafood dishes though — we have awesome seafood here in Orkney. I like shell fish personally because sustainability means a lot to us at Twenty One.
So sustainability is important across the board?
The sustainability of meat and fish is really important to us. Some fish here are completely over fished, but we have so much hake in Orkney, for example, and no one eats it. We’ve also got Scapa flow langoustines on the menu and I'm looking to use fish like Megrim, it's a bit trendier and a good substitute for plaice, which really over fished locally. We recycle and we don't sell plastic to the customers, unless it's completely unavoidable.
Can we expect local Orkney booze brands to be served behind the bar?
We've got three local gins, Highland Park whisky and Scapa whiskey and three local craft beers on tap by Swannay Brewery in Orkney. We’ve got 12 craft beers on tap in total including a few from Brewdog and Fierce Beer based in Aberdeen. We only sell craft - just to be a bit different.
Twenty One serve craft beer on tap and local spirits
Do you think the small plate concept will take off in Orkney long term?
I hope so! Now we have done it and it’s proved to be popular we might see a few more folk trying it out. I think folk here have been too scared to try new things in case they didn’t work. Hopefully restaurants around us will step things up a bit and see we have raised the bar and that change is good. We want healthy competition, but we'll always keep our foot on the gas.
What has been the most surprising thing about this process?
I think just how popular it’s become so quickly — we thought it would take longer. We opened Archive Coffee up the road two and a half years ago and successfully tackled lunches in Kirkwall. We've taken on the night scene in a different way, but we've learnt from previous mistakes. The staff are relaxed and really enjoy their jobs and so that rubs off on customers. The whole vibe is just so relaxed and fun. It has definitely been a great thing for us.