The Horseshoe Inn, a humble roadside restaurant 18 miles south of Edinburgh, wins the award for most surprising experience of 2015 so far. From the outside it’s a small, unassuming building with no particular features other than a pair of porthole windows; as such most people whizz past it on their way to the popular town of Peebles, five minutes away. But fortune favours the adventurous, and those smart enough to step into this little Hobbit house are rewarded with an unforgettable dining experience – one that we’re still pining for, three weeks later.
The transformation begins as soon as you’re inside, where smart young waiters dressed in tweed waistcoats greet guests with courtesy and warmth. To the left is a lounge with bar; to the right is the restaurant. Both are intimate spaces that sparkle with candlelight at dinner-time, wrapping the whole place up in the most romantic of atmospheres. We were here to review The Horseshoe’s two-day Gourmet Break package (‘Come to the Scottish Borders and let us look after you’) that begins on the night of your arrival with a glass of Champagne in the lounge – a creamy, biodynamic Fleury Extra Brut 2002 that general manager/wine buff Mark Slaney picked out for us.
It’s a richly decorated dining room – antique tables, ornate mirrors, gold-framed oil paintings – and there’s a relaxing hush about the space. Guests speak in quiet tête-à-têtes, waiters tread softly, and you can’t hear so much as a spoon drop from the adjoining kitchen. Our first taste of head chef Alistair Craig’s food was quite possibly the best amuse-bouche we’ve ever had: an invigoratingly fresh fennel, thyme and lime cream, the texture whipped and dreamy, with buttery brown shrimps on top.
Six sophisticated courses followed, most of them pared-down to just three ingredients. Rich and silky cured Highlands red deer took the limelight on a plate where only candied squash and crème fraîche were invited; pickled mackerel, with soft flesh but firm bite, also took centre stage, accompanied by a smooth kohlrabi rémoulade and a little bowl of dashi; the natural sweetness of seared local venison was exaggerated by a syrupy jus; and locally picked berries triumphed in a cold soup for dessert, with only shards of crumbly shortbread for company.
It was the same, simple-but-intelligent cooking the next night (two tasting menus are included in the package), when we enjoyed poached rabbit loin in a broth so comforting it tasted like buttered toast; tangy homemade French curd with onion ash and honeycomb; and velvety, delicate steak tartare with the slightest hint of horseradish. Just one more mention: the petit fours after dinner were superb, especially what looked like a white chocolate cake pop; inside was ice-cold passion fruit granita that exploded on first bite – deliciously dramatic. This is thoughtful, precise cooking of the kind that could earn Alistair a Michelin star one day (he left a starred hotel, The Montagu Arms in Hampshire, to work here).
Impeccable, professional service and Mark’s clever wine pairing – which you must pay a surcharge for – took what was already an excellent meal into unforgettable territory. His wine menu comes as a hefty tome, peppered with anecdotes and photos from 30 years of wine buying, and it’s constantly being updated. Just as well, then, that The Gourmet Break includes two overnight stays in the converted Victorian schoolhouse round the side of the inn, well within stumbling distance. The rooms are comfortable, clean and cosy (and come with a slice of homemade cake every morning), though a little on the snug side and not as exquisite as the food.
The next day, until dinner-time, was entirely devoted to exploring the Scottish Borders. Mark has been living in the area for over 30 years and knows his territory well – give him any challenge (‘take me to the place where I’m most likely to see an eagle’) and Mark will deliver. He’s your driver for the day and the itinerary is completely up to you. We wanted to meet the man who smoked our salmon for breakfast that morning, so off we went on an hour-long drive through stunning Tweed Valley scenery – curvy purple hills, the mirrored sheen of St Mary’s Loch, not another soul for the whole journey – to reach the impossibly quaint village of Etrrickbridge… the residents have literally covered it in knitting, including a cosy for the telephone box. Mike Roberts, aka The Ettrick Valley Smokehouse, smokes his line-caught, whisky-infused salmon here – it’s brilliantly authentic, and no trip to the Scottish Borders is complete without trying some.
Next followed a beautiful, scrambling walk through the leafy outskirts of Peebles and a complimentary lunch at the charming Kailzie Gardens Restaurant, set inside a 19th century stable – a great opportunity to eat yet more Ettrick Valley smoked salmon (with apple and dill cream cheese on focaccia), or delicate deep-fried place with Danish remoulade. Try their breads with textured homemade dukkah, too. If you prefer, and the weather’s good, Mark can arrange an al fresco barbecue on a beautiful mountainside for lunch instead… nothing is off limits with this man.
Two nights of Alistair’s exquisite food, a personalised tour of one of Britain’s most beautiful natural landscapes, accommodation on both nights, two excellent breakfasts, and chauffeur-driven transfers to Edinburgh costs £700 per couple. If you can’t stretch to that much, go just for dinner – in 2015, we’ve never been somewhere so close to the 10/10 mark. Click here for more information on The Gourmet Break; tasting menus at The Horseshoe start from £60 per person, or £90 with wine pairing; a la carte starts from £50 per person. horseshoeinn.co.uk
It takes someone special to turn an old shipping container into a hip restaurant. Tom Lewis, high-energy chef-owner at Monachyle Mhor Hotel, is that person – with bells on.
Tom’s innovative ideas are evident in all Mhor enterprises. So far, these are a smart hotel, Monachyle Mhor, a groovy motel/all-day restaurant, Mhor 84, a café, pie-shop and baker, Mhor Bread, and a smart chippy serving seafood pasta as well as haddock and chips, Mhor Fish. All are within the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park with its alluring heather-strewn peaks and glinting lochs.
This latest venture (part of Tom’s Mhor To Your Door operation) is particularly inspired. Its USP – aside from being a restaurant in a container – is that it can be towed to dazzling locations, enabling a posh pop-up with spectacular views. Tom’s taking bookings to hire the whole shebang, but look out for pop-ups at events, too.
The style of the mobile restaurant is cosy elegance. It’s arranged with 24 white table-clothed settings, vases of wild flowers, candles, a log burning stove and stylish white-washed floorboards. One length has windows and the other a misty photo frieze of Loch Voil. Take a seat and it’s easy to forget you’re in a metal box that used to ship grain all over the world.
The menu is likely to be a multi-course taster featuring local produce, all cooked in a converted silver sheep-trailer alongside. You might get crowdie from Katy Rodger’s artisan dairy paired with wild sorrel served with a light dram of 10 Year Old Glengoyne whisky, then perhaps a loin of venison – shot in the next glen – with sunset-tinged foraged chanterelles or nettle-crusted skirlie, and a slice of Trossachs trout matched with herbs from the Mhor kitchen garden. All of it delicious.
Tom and his team have set the bar high for good food in the National Park, but there’s an increasing array of producers here too, offering venison, beef, lamb, smoked fish, shellfish, fruit, honey, dairy produce, cakes, pies, whisky and craft beer. Scotland as a whole has a revamped pride in its native produce. Where once it used to ship the best seafood and meat abroad, Scots are now relishing it on home turf and enticing visitors with it, too.
A clutch of top chefs – Tom, Nick Nairn, Martin Wishart and, a smidge north, Andrew Fairlie – have set up shop in the region. Other exceptional eateries dotted about the local countryside include Venachar Lochside, The Woodhouse, the Lake of Menteith Hotel, the Cross Keys in Kippen, the original Loch Fyne Oysters and more.
But it’s Tom and his inventive ideas that sum up the Trossachs food scene. The bright and welcoming bar and restaurant at Mhor 84, with its colourful, upcycled décor, and now the mobile restaurant define his Just-Do-It approach. He’s the type who has an idea, and before anyone else has pondered it, he and his family have built it, given it a lick of paint, decorated it with eclectic bits, and started cooking in it.
Glasgow on a budget
Glasgow has never had much truck with fine dining; nor has she done much in the way of courting the Michelin fanfare: big-name chefs have blown in, bloused up a place and blown back out again, leaving the city lacking in stars. Yet gems abound. The Ubiquitous Chip is one of the city’s foremost restaurants, but its wee lassie Stravaigin is a less stuffy, less extravagant affair. The name comes from the old Scots word ‘stravaig’ meaning ‘to wander aimlessly with intent’ and encapsulates its ‘think global, eat local’ ethos. The menu is vast, its range appealing more to regulars who no doubt tire of black pudding – it boasts that ‘no culinary stone is left unturned’. I stick to the Scottish stones. Here they lovingly make their own haggis to a secret, gently spicy recipe handed from father Ronnie Clydesdale to son Colin. It’s served with mashed neeps, champit tatties and an optional side of whisky sauce.
In the architecturally-magnificent Merchant City district, I return to Café Gandolfi, where stained-glass shoals of fish swim across the windows, and seek out Rannoch Moor smoked venison with a pot of rowanberry jelly and gratin dauphinoise. Outside, red and honeyed sandstone buildings stand, built on a grid system years before the famous blocks of Manhattan or Chicago even existed. Beneath the pavements runs the subway – Glasgow’s Underground system a.k.a. ‘the clockwork orange’. At the Shields Road exit on the Southside is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School, sits The Fish People Café. Initially, owner Tom Bell fancied opening a chippy alongside his wet-fish shop, but instead he created a café that simply cooks eye-poppingly fresh fish, mostly caught off Scotland’s shores. Here I find some of the finest-ever cullen skink – light and creamy (not thick with flour), with chunks of poached smoked haddock and potatoes. Oysters from the Isle of Cumbrae are sweet and astonishingly cheap at £1.75 a piece, and I adore the pickled herring salad with beetroot, apple and horseradish slaw. Coffee comes with chunks of crumbling tablet (like fudge, but brittle and more grainy) as perfect as my mammy used to make.
To read Audrey Gillan’s full article on eating out on a budget in Glasgow click here.
The 18th-century Bridge Inn, in the village of Ratho on the Union Canal, is just a caber’s toss from Edinburgh. The field-to-plate concept is an easy one for owners Graham and Rachel Bucknall, who breed pigs and grow vegetables and herbs in the walled kitchen garden.
In season, you can tuck into partridge, pheasant, rabbit and venison. Starters include pulled pork and apple terrine with red cabbage, apple and mustardslaw, salt-baked crispbreads and cider jellies. Mains include Ardgay venison loin and haunch boudin with kale, clotted cream mash and port jus. From Ardgay Game and John Gilmour Butchers, to fishmongers George Campbell & Sons, all meat and fish are from Scotland.
You can sink a pint of Daura, cask ales such as Dark Island from Orkney and a range of guest ales. The wine list features gems including an Austrian veltliner. Finish with a ‘stickie’ (dessert wine or port) such as a Jerome Quiot Muscat or a dram in front of the roaring fire. Malts on offer include a smoky 10-year-old Laphroaig.
There are bedrooms here too: bijoux Bonnington, Baird, Bryce and Burke are cosy rooms, all with views. Bonnington has an ornate four-poster bed. Baird has a slipper bath, Bryce a brass bed and Burke is in chic cream-and-striped country style.
And don’t skip breakfast. Free-range chickens and ducks from Ratho Hall lay the eggs for breakfast. The full Scottish includes haggis, Stornoway black pudding, a tattie scone and Ratho Hall sausages. Or drizzle honey over a bowl of creamy porridge.
Double rooms from £90 b&b, mains from £11 (bridgeinn.com)
The Isle of Eriska
Cross the rattly Victorian bridge to Eriska and you immediately feel a sense of island zen. A little way up the Scottish coastline from Oban, this 350-acre private island hotel has views to Lismore and to mountains. There are seals on the shore, badgers coming to the door to be fed milk at night, fat sofas beside big fires and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
The Lismore Suite has views over the sea with the Highlands in the distance but, for ultimate escapism, book a self-catering ‘Hilltop Reserve’ and have a breakfast hamper delivered to your door.
Bring wellies because the island has lots to explore – there’s a partly submerged Crannog (a fortified dwelling dating from the Bronze Age) – but also a book to curl up with by the fire while you wait for afternoon tea (included in the price).
Food is the big draw for many visitors. The menu changes seasonally, but look out for Isle of Mull scallops, with brassicas, whipped yolk and roast chicken sauce, or roast Eriska pork belly with grilled gherkin, roast curd, roast pearl barley and ‘alcoholic’ gooseberries. Don’t miss the cheese trolley. Eriska has over 30 cheeses on offer including Isle of Mull cheddar, Ailsa Craig goat’s cheese and creamy Lanark Blue. Or take a whisky tasting and decide whether you favour a peaty Islay malt or a treacly Glenmorangie.
Stays cost from £195pp, including dinner, bed and breakfast (eriska-hotel.co.uk).
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