Sail to Arran for dishes with flair from fresh local fare
Caledonian MacBrayne do a good chip. Or maybe it’s just – after 30 years of visiting Arran annually – that my tastebuds get nostalgic for their bog-standard ferry frites. These used to be served out of a polystyrene cup, which made it possible to take them onto the deck to throw, dart-like, directly into seagulls’ beaks (they fly beside the boat to get them, like pilot fish on a whale).
But this year I saved my appetite. I was en-route to the recently refurbished Douglas Hotel, almost directly opposite the Brodick ferry terminal. It’s a red-brick Victorian villa that doesn’t face the water like all the other buildings, but looks off to the side, as if it’s a bit coy.
It’s challenging to run a fine dining eatery on this island, thanks to higher energy costs, a short tourist season and the price of shipping products over from the mainland. And finding local produce on menus is rarer than it should be.
However, this new place, whose head chef, Gregg Russell, is formerly of Eighteen69 and Cringletie House in Peebles, claims to use “home-grown or locally sourced ingredients”. On the food list we spotted Arran’s own beer, mustard, ice cream and cheese. Good start.
Three of us shared two starters – carpaccio of Scotch beef fillet (£7.50) and pan-fried scallops (£8.50). The latter featured three marshmallows of seafood, with toasty surfaces and sidekicks of sweet potato purée, a crispy strip of pancetta, pea shoots and a crescent-shaped swirl of star-anisey herb oil. Equal measures of sweet, salty and peppery, great.
Our other option, less so. The meat tasted fab, but it was cold enough to seem partially defrosted, while its topping of grated horseradish was a little too powerful for the delicate protein.
They also seemed to have mislaid the “red wine reduction” that had been billed. It almost felt as if someone in the kitchen hadn’t prepped properly, as they didn’t anticipate that anyone would order this dish. But I had.
Mains yo-yo-ed. The top option was pan-fried halibut (£14.50) – a pile of well-pummelled mash, three thick struts of asparagus, then, a well-seasoned fillet‘o’meaty white fish. On the side – blobs of squat lobster and chopped tomato cubes, all soaking in a pool of dilly dressing. Simples, but lovely.
Tuscan spiced chicken (£13.60) was fine. A pair of tram-lined grilled chicken breasts were drizzled with a sage and thyme-spiked lemon juice and had bags of flavour. However, if I’d eaten the huge quantity of acidic sun-blushed tomatoes that were heaped onto the plate, outnumbering the cubes of artichoke and green olives by 7:1, my salivary glands would have gone into geyser mode.
Another main – slow-cooked garlic and balsamic lamb (£14) – featured fleecily soft chunks of meat. All three of us tested this option – one adored it, and the others (me included) found the dark, caramely sauce, which contained silverskin onions and carrots, cloyingly sweet. It came with crispy skinned “sea-salt roasties” and green beans.
A trio of starry desserts made up for any earlier glitches. Hot lemon curd souffle (£6.50) was a yellow feather boa of a dessert – fluffy, light and unsubtly glam, with a quenelle of fuchsia blackcurrant sorbet on the side. Splendid.
The pistachio and poppyseed torte (£6.50), with vanilla-flecked mascarpone, had a buttery, neatly crimped pastry, with an almondy sponge filling.
Spiced coffee and milk chocolate mousse (£6.50) put the ding! in pudding, with its frothy texture and spongy base. It came with a moist finger of boozy and raisin-laden tea bread and a swirl of cappuccino-flavoured cream.
Bear hugs to the pastry chef. This place isn’t perfect yet, but it might just get there. It’s definitely worth the CalMac journey. Just make sure to resist the chips (you’ll need room for pud).
The Douglas Bistro
The Douglas Hotel, Brodick, Isle of Arran (01770 302968, www.thedouglashotel.co.uk)
How much? Dinner for three, excluding drinks, £77.60
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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