We go behind the scenes at Inver, a visionary Scottish restaurant serving up radical takes on traditional Caledonian cooking such as whipped custard with raw ginger and whisky, lamb cooked over coals with cured courgettes and ewe’s yogurt, and oysters plucked from the loch 30 minutes before hitting the table...
When chef Pamela Brunton and her partner Rob Latimer opened Inver, an experimental restaurant on the banks of a remote loch in the Scottish highlands, they expected some resistance from locals used to the Scottish staples served by the previous owner. “Former customers would come in demanding fish and chips,” says Rob, who works as front-of-house. But instead of getting downhearted by the requests, the couple took inspiration, and in a cheeky culinary twist that was soon to become their trademark, they duly added fish and chips to the menu – only served it completely raw.
Cured halibut with pickled potatoes did not go down well with the old guard, who resigned themselves to travelling further up the coast for their fish and chips, but as word got out of a progressive new chef turning traditional Scottish dining on its head, reinventing age-old recipes and rejuvenating ancient cooking methods, Inver started attracting attention. Three years since opening, it is lauded as one of the UK’s best restaurants and has garnered legions of followers on its Instagram feed, which documents, among other things, its epicurean experiments (fermented gannet, anyone? Cockerel’s testicles?).
It’s only when I begin the 90-minute drive to Inver from Glasgow (check out our guide to the best places to eat in Glasgow here) that I understand the risk Pam and Rob took by opening a destination restaurant in this lesser-visited corner of Scotland. The drive takes you through the dramatic honeypots of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, north west, to the comparatively demure Cowal Peninsula, a region so untrammelled that the tourist board plays on its obscurity, branding it ‘Argyll’s Secret Coast’.
The pretty, slate-roofed, white-washed crofter’s cottage gives nothing away about the game-changing cuisine being produced within. Passers-by stop here expecting standard pub grub – and get politely redirected to The Oyster Catcher down the road. The view is sublime: an endlessly moving, pewter-coloured sea-loch, two castles – one 14th century, one 18th – fluffy fringes of wild flowers and grasses, wading birds and a tiny island with a miniature lighthouse. It’s so far removed from humdrum reality that it takes you down a notch or two even before you’ve sat down.
Inside, there is a fresh, pared-down vibe – all white walls, scrub floors and vintage memorabilia, with that view framed through picture windows and blue shutters. Rob, a former animator, and Pam, who worked at trend-setting Noma in Copenhagen (discover our Copenhagen weekend guide here), Tom Aitkens in London and In De Wulf in Ghent, have been so busy at Inver that they still live in a caravan up the road, and use the restaurant as their second home, filling it with their best-loved possessions and creations of crafty friends. On the walls are framed Seventies’ baking books, antiquarian illustrations of sea-life, a set of deer antlers and a stuffed fish head. Shelves groan under Pam’s huge collection of recipe books and Rob’s blues, soul and hip-hop records (which get played on a turntable balanced on an apple crate). It’s all reassuringly analogue.
A homely lounge has sheepskin-covered window seats and a feather-filled sofa grouped around a cosy wood-burning stove, plus a sleek bar stocked with natural wines (discover everything you need to know about natural wines), Belgian beers, spirits, freshly-squeezed juices, house-made cordials and craft ales made to Inver’s own recipe by Fyne Ales, a small farm brewery in Cairndow (fyneales.com). An audio book of Stoner by John Williams plays in the toilets.
Pam, who stands at a diminutive 4’11’ tall and whose loud, firecracker laugh explodes regularly from the kitchen, takes inspiration from traditional, half-forgotten Scottish recipes, then adds her own, youthful, twist, drawing on international influences and contemporary cooking methods. She calls her style “modern Scottish, because it’s deliberately broad” – the result is a magnificent melding of the traditional and the trendy. Her repertoire includes whipkull, a traditional Shetland whipped custard, which she spikes with raw ginger juice and whisky, then puts through a cream siphon and serves as a dessert with cured rhubarb and raw rhubarb sorbet; and partan bree, a traditional crab soup, which she serves in the crab shell with sushi-style rice, fried so it’s crisp. Traditional Stornaway black pudding and scallops is turned into a pig’s blood brioche bun with a raw scallop in the middle, and then, of course, there’s the raw fish and chips. Perhaps most radical is a pig’s head sliced with pickled greengages and a stuffed halibut head which, Rob says, “is the ugliest thing we serve, but tastes epic.”
Everything is made from scratch and processed using artisanal, time-honoured crafts: curing, grilling, fermenting, ageing, brining, smoking and pickling. “We have a Scottish ethos of peasant, subsistence cooking where nothing is wasted”, says Pam. “The nose-to-tail philosophy extends to plants, too,” adds Rob. Seeds, roots, flowers, stems – everything gets used.
Dishes are truly rooted in their environment, with ingredients gathered by Pam and her staff from the loch shore, forests and hedgerows surrounding Inver: samphire, elderflower, sea campion, mustard plant, wild garlic, young vetch, herbs, wild strawberries. “Coming to work is like walking through a fresh produce market every day, only it’s free,” says Pam.
My scallops, hand-dived by Inver’s former pot-washer, arrive raw and plump in a white asparagus and seaweed tart. There are oysters, plucked from the loch at Otter Ferry a mere 30 minutes ago, that come with spiky horseradish and lemon, and fat langoustine, again straight out of the loch, served with rapeseed mayonnaise and just-baked sourdough bread. Halibut is born in Otter Ferry, then reared sustainably on nearby Gigha. It usually gets shipped to the best restaurants in London, but here it is served for a fraction of the price, accompanied by Loch Fyne mussels, foraged coastal greens and smoky mussel butter. Blush-pink lamb, reared on the Isle of Bute, is cooked over coals and served with cured courgettes, house-aged ewe’s yoghurt and a grilled garlic lamb sausage.
Plating is immaculate: the plaice is prettily topped with new-season peas, foraged gooseberries and crispy dabberlocks, and doused with a salty dulse buttery sauce, while a cured trout and grilled pea soup comes elegantly fanned in a tactile, handmade bowl. Most dishes are crowned with just-plucked, vibrantly coloured blooms, herbs and salad leaves grown in a light-filled Victorian greenhouse on the Ardkinglas Estate and by Kate Glasgow in her charming market garden in Strachur. Kate’s Salad – a colourful carnival-in-a-dish that’s become a menu staple – is named after her. Is there anything the restaurant can’t source locally? “Scotland doesn’t do citrus, chocolate or coffee yet,” says Pam. My dessert, a grilled Scottish strawberry mousse and elderflower pannacota with a sugar butter pastry dredged in burnt strawberry powder, is stand-out delicious.
It all feels wonderfully liberated, uplifting and healthy, perfect hashtag fodder for the diners who greet each dish by excitedly wiggling on their seats before embarking on a round of frenzied photo-taking. Even the bill elicits delight – it comes pinned to a vintage postcard regaling nostalgic stories of family holidays.
The clincher is that you no longer have to drive afterwards. In March, Pam and Rob opened four contemporary bothy-style huts next to the restaurant, each sharing the same divine view of the loch through dual-aspect, floor-to-ceiling windows. Topped with a curved tin roof and clad in Scottish larch, inside they’re kitted out with super-king beds, upholstered headboards, mid-century-style furniture, copper anglepoise lamps, birch-ply walls and smart monochrome bathrooms with fabulously powerful showers. There’s a record player, Penguin classics, tea and coffee, homemade hazelnut cookies and rhubarb vodka as pink as the evening’s setting sun, when I watch a heron wait patiently for his own nose-to-tail meal.
Breakfasts, delivered to the door in a wicker basket, are sublime: a choice of bircher muesli and granola, rhubarb compote and camomile yoghurt in mini Kilner jars, just-baked pastries, squidgy sourdough bread, salty hand-churned cultured butter, a golden-yellow boiled egg with mayonnaise and sea salt, pork rillettes, Jersey-milk cheddar cheese and freshly squeezed apple or orange juice.
It’s possible to lose an entire day at Inver in a state of near-hypnosis, watching the tide ebb and flow, inhaling the fresh briny air and listening to bird calls drift across the loch. I walk my dog, play on a rope swing under the ruins of Old Castle Lachlan and visit the medieval ruins of tiny Kilmorie Chapel, where Maclachlan clan chiefs (who still own the land) are buried, along with their gamekeepers.
I force myself away, however, to explore three other restaurants nearby. The Oyster Catcher, in Otter Ferry, is a loch-side pub with new owners who serve some of the most sophisticated and delicious pub food I’ve ever tasted: house-cured gravlax with house-made treacle rye bread and beetroot relish, and Cointreau shellfish bouillabaisse (theoystercatcher.co.uk). Along the coast, in Tighnabruaich, Botanica – also new – has a similar piscatorial persuasion, delivering bowls of podgy mussels and langoustines in a simple, rustic setting (botanicafood.co.uk). And the original branch of Loch Fyne Oysters at Cairndow doesn’t disappoint either, serving huge plates of meaty molluscs laid prone on crushed ice (lochfyne.com). Four restaurants, each packing considerable culinary clout – Argyll’s secret coast may not be secret for much longer. I feel a rebrand coming.