There can be few more impressive country houses in the whole of Scotland than Culloden House, the ivy-covered pile where Bonnie Prince Charlie spent two nights before the fateful battle he lost more than 250 years ago.
Culloden, Inverness (01463 790461, www.cullodenhouse.co.uk)
Starters £6.95-£13.95 Intermediates £5.50-£6.95 Main courses £17-£34 Puddings £9.25 Cheese £10.75)
From the moment you turn your car through the pillared entrance and head up the drive towards the house itself, it’s impossible not to be awe-struck by a hotel that oozes history and radiates class.
Culloden House is a remarkable edifice, a grand four-storey neo-classical country house with two annexes, which presents a formidable facade. From the croquet lawn in front of the house to the red-carpeted flight of stairs leading to the front door, followed by the wood-panelled entrance hall, complete with the obligatory oils of country scenes and portraits of stentorian old stuffed shirts in various states of military dress, the place looks every inch the top-flight country house hotel.
This impression is consolidated by evidence of various awards decorating the entrance hall. Prominent among them is last year’s award from Condé Nast Traveller magazine, which rates the hotel as its best in Scotland, Britain and Europe, and 11th-best in the world. Heady stuff.
Nor is the hotel just about the past. The construction in 2008 of Castle Stuart golf course, the venue for the Scottish Open, two miles down the road, ensures a constant flow of well-heeled guests wearing pastel shades and slacks.
Of all the rooms, none are more spectacular than the pre-dinner room, the Adam lounge, named after the building’s architect, Robert Adam. This is a cavernous space with ceilings 20 feet high and views over the meadow-like back garden, which is usually replete with a herd of Highland cows. But if this sounds like a scene from Brigadoon, with no cliché left unturned, there’s no need to worry because Culloden House wears its history lightly.
There’s no themed Bonnie Prince Charlie room or Highlander lounge, or any of that nonsense. The place has an understated air and, if anything, is beginning to look a little dog-eared. Quite what our fellow diners – almost all overseas visitors, including several Americans, Mexicans and a couple of tables of Japanese – made of the shabby chic I don’t know. They certainly seemed happy and voluble enough in the restaurant.
Under head chef Michael Simpson’s 27-year stewardship (all the staff seemed to be as long-serving as they are efficient and helpful), Culloden House has got itself two AA rosettes and an EatScotland silver status, establishing it at the upper end of the culinary pantheon. Its menu is suitably upscale too, and presents correspondingly imposing prices: around £13 per starter, in the 20s for a main course and just under a tenner for pudding. With prices like these, backed up by a slew of awards, we had every expectation of enjoying a stellar meal.
After canapes in the Adam Lounge, we moved through to dinner and chose two starters capable of whetting any appetite. Graham went for the cannelloni of raw tuna with spiced crab, mango salsa and soy jelly, while I opted for the roast breast of wood pigeon with blue cheese and poached pear risotto. Graham’s roll of tuna, which contained the lightly spiced crab, was absolutely enormous; so big, in fact, that the big man piling his way through it almost admitted defeat and threw in the towel halfway through.
If that starter just missed the mark for no other reason than that the sheer thickness of the rolled tuna overwhelmed all the other ingredients, my pigeon was also a mixed blessing. The meat itself was nicely gamey but without any crimson, so a little overcooked for my taste. The hefty helping of risotto, while containing the right amount of blue cheese, had also spent too long in the pan and was a sodden and heavy. They were, we concluded, two dishes that were well conceived but fell just short.
For our intermediate course, we went for the most palate-cleansing choices on offer: a pineapple and vodka sorbet that was a delightful mix of sweetness and kick, plus a melon and passion fruit soup with fromage frais foam, a mix that worked just as well as the sorbet.
Our main courses diverged once again, with Graham going for the meat option – the assiette of pork with seared langoustine in cider jus – while I opted for the turmeric-roasted fillet of halibut with squid ink tagliatelle and chive buerre blanc.
I certainly had the better of this one, with the black squid ink tagliatelle a joy and the lovely white meat of the halibut satisfying too. Graham’s pork was, however, clearly overcooked and accompanied by a single langoustine, although the cider jus added a nicely sweet touch.
Pudding turned out to be the highlight of the meal, with Graham’s baked amaretto peach, thyme brulée and white peach ice-cream proving to be an interesting variation on the theme – even if there was no hint of amaretto. My white chocolate and lemon parfait with fresh raspberries in jelly and chocolate espuma was the star, though, with the tart parfait and jelly-encased berries the perfect way to finish the meal.
Afterwards, we chatted with and earwigged on fellow diners talking about their meal. Most seemed generally pleased, although they all seemed as enamoured of the history and grandeur of the surroundings as they were of the food itself.
You can’t eat history, though, and for such a hefy outlay we can’t help but feel that it’s time for Culloden House to up its game if it is to continue to live up to its accolades and rosettes.
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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