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 (always pick the smoked salmon, whatever it comes with) and chauffeur car return to Edinburgh city centre is, in our opinion, well worth the £700 per couple charge. But if you can’t stretch to that much, please just go for dinner instead – in 2015 at least, we’ve never been somewhere so close to the 10/10 mark.
By Charlotte Morgan, October 2015
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. Open Wednesday to Sunday, horseshoeinn.co.uk
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