WE encountered a dish worth finding: interesting, innovative and full of punchy flavours
The gastronomic jungle drums tend to work pretty well and it’s rare for a gem to stay hidden for too long. So it has been slightly surprising to have heard, over the past few months, a steady trickle of people talking about Loch Ness Lodge, a five-year-old, purpose-built boutique hotel on the banks of Loch Ness just south of Inverness.
The place, which recently won the Bill & Ted-esque moniker of ‘Condé Nast Johansens Most Excellent Small Hotel UK & Ireland 2012’, is the brainchild of Fortrose-raised hotelier Scott Sutherland, formerly of Boath House. He saw the potential of a site on which his parents had already built four self-catering cottages into the hill overlooking Loch Ness. Despite being just yards from the A82, which runs along the lochside just below the lodge, the place is so well-hidden and understated we sped past before turning around and meandering up the single-track road to the lodge.
This turned out to be a tidy, unashamedly utilitarian building which gave a nod to the area’s architectural heritage in a small tower immediately next to the entrance. Yet once inside, the lodge lives up to its top-end aspirations with an attention to detail that’s immediately obvious. In a neat reversal of the usual Highland country house formula, it doesn’t inspire shock or awe from the outside, but is conspicuously warm, comfortable and sumptuous once you walk through the front door.
The interior is very un-Highland: there are no gloomy portraits of great uncle Hamish scowling censoriously at diners; the walls are painted in neutral colours rather than the usual strident crimsons and dark greens, and the ceilings are just about low enough to touch if you could be bothered to jump. There is, however, a classic view across the loch, framed by immaculately tended gardens sloping towards the water.
That was the scene as we tucked into a plate of canapes in front of a roaring fire (no matter how well insulated the building, they are all subject to a Highland summer). A curiously muted parmesan beignet, breaded frogs’ legs and, best of all, marinated salmon wrapped in pickled tamarind hinted at the presence of a chef of ambition and innovation.
That man is local lad Ross Fraser, who as well as plying his trade in Australia has worked under Jean-Christophe Novelli and Marco Pierre White, and who has earned two AA rosettes and an EatScotland gold award for Loch Ness Lodge. The Francophile tendencies he picked up while working at Quovadis, White’s London restaurant, were apparent as soon as we picked up the menus. That, though, can only be a good thing: classic French techniques plus the best Highland ingredients is a combination that’s hard to beat.
Our antennae pricked up further as soon as the bread rolls arrived: baked on the premises by Fraser using beer from the Black Isle Brewery and locally grown rye, they were accompanied by pats of home-made butter that was as creamy and velveteen as any I’ve experienced. While Graham tried to work out how he could filch a couple of pats to inspire the chef at his own restaurant, I waited for the opening salvo of our five-course tasting menu.
Within moments, Chris our Kiwi waiter was back with the first course, a tomato tea with basil oil and fresh herbs. This was a fascinating dish, reminiscent of the Martin Wishart classic in which he extracts the taste of the tomato without the colour, presenting diners with a clear liquid that has a pungent aroma and taste of tomato.
Fraser’s version had a light, rosy hue and a similarly intense flavour, yet the whole effect was compromised by the addition of basil oil and a veritable forest of herbs, which added an unctuous sheen to the dish and meant we had to munch our way through a good deal of excess foliage. Once we’d dispensed with the greenery, we encountered a dish worth finding: interesting, innovative and full of punchy flavours, this explained why people have been talking about Loch Ness Lodge.
My next course was as enticing as it was ambitious, with a tiny flute of St Kilda crab wrapped in cured cucumber and garnished with apple peel and pennywort. It was as palate-tingling as it sounds, yet the portion was so disappointingly meagre it was all over in two small bites. On this occasion, less wasn’t more.
Graham, however, was gushingly effusive about his two disks of ballotine of Moy rabbit, which came with a carrot and tonka purée, a honey dressing and a decadently extraneous slice of truffle. It was, he said, the best rabbit dish he’d ever had – high praise indeed from a foodie with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scotland’s restaurant scene.
The main event followed much the same course with Graham’s choice of a perfectly cooked fillet of John Dory with linguine nero, roasted pepper, a bouillabaisse sauce and pickled anchovy a sublime symphony of taste. My loin of Bannockburn wild boar with Iberico pig’s cheek was deserving of a more qualified response: the pig’s cheek was a slab of dark, sumptuous perfection, but the slices of loin, though succulent, were surprisingly bland so the meat either needs to be hung longer or greater thought needs to be given to how to draw out its flavours.
After a cheese course of three small slices – brie de Meaux (slightly less oozing than I like), Blue Monday from Tain (gorgeously tart) and double-barrelled poacher cheddar from Lincolnshire (strong but a little dry), all accompanied by unleavened raisin toasts that had been a little over-toasted – we finished off with an impressive take on pistachio fraisier. Complete with poached strawberries and a refreshing white chocolate sorbet, this was followed by three excellent petits fours (passion fruit jelly, earl grey truffle and saffron macaroons) and coffee.
The hype, it turned out, was justified. If some of the above verdicts sound a little grudging, that is because there is a palpable sense that Loch Ness Lodge judges itself by the highest standards and invites you to do the same.
With the taster menu coming in at £57.50, it’s certainly not cheap, but the beautiful views, luxurious surroundings, faultless service and – above all – Fraser’s obvious obsession with making your visit a memorable gastronomic experience make this a price worth paying.
Loch Ness Lodge
Brachla, Inverness (01456 459469, www.loch-ness-lodge.com)
Five-course taster menu (including coffee and petits fours) £57.50. Rating
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