THE Jeremy Wares story is a remarkable one that bears retelling. After training in a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, the Perthshire chef worked around the world before decamping back to Scotland to become Nick Nairn’s head chef.
Then he opened Perth’s poshest restaurant, 63 Tay Street, where he was named Scottish Chef of the Year and for which he won the title of Scottish Restaurant of the Year. A hugely successful gastropub, the Angler’s Inn, in Guildtown, followed.
So far, so impressive, but events took a sharp turn for the worse in 2009 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and was forced to give up the Angler’s. But being at the sharp end of the kitchen remains Wares’s passion, and after a spell making ready-made meals with his wife Shona, he has moved back into frontline cuisine by taking a role as head chef at the Macdonald Houstoun House, just outside Livingston.
Told he would be in a wheelchair within five years if he kept working crazy hours, he instead works two nights a week and oversees the menu in executive chef style for the rest of the time. It’s a great deal for both chef and hotel: Wares can keep doing what he loves without risking his health, while the ambitious four-star hotel gets one of the country’s finest chefs, a man who will draw in curious foodies and bolster trade in an area where there are few alternatives to going into Edinburgh.
Wares must also have been attracted by Houstoun House itself. Sure, it appears that a good deal of its business comes from conferences, weddings and the spa, yet this is a gem of a building, a fortified Scottish house that still manages to be jaw-droppingly beautiful – despite the fact that it has a modern spa plonked on the front. Once inside, the place continues to engage: there’s oak panelling everywhere, portraits of great-great-uncles Archie and Hamish cover every available inch of wall space and there are antiquey touches in every nook and cranny.
Nowhere is this more the case than in the restaurant itself, an inviting, shuttered room that has been done in dark period paint and which looks like the dining room of a really top-end country hotel, which is presumably how Houstoun House is pitching itself. When we arrived the lights were down low, there were candles everywhere and the place had an unmistakeably romantic aura, spoiled only by the fact that in a three-quarters-full room there were precisely zero women diners (not that we helped: my dining companion was a burly 6ft 5in American with even less hair than me and a deeper voice than Barry White).
Much as I love candlelight, when it’s combined with a menu printed in tiny writing you’re in trouble – and so it proved. We both have decent eyesight but reading the menu required a feat of concentration, with Duncan at one stage holding the candle so close to the menu that it actually started smoking. We clearly weren’t the only ones having the same problem, however, and about ten minutes into our meal the dimmer switch on the chandelier was turned from intimate to forensic and the room was bathed in a rather harsh glare of full-wattage illumination.
Once we had managed to navigate our way around a menu that included Wares classics such as stalker pie, I chose the pork belly with black pudding while Duncan opted for the thin onion and thyme tart. Neither of us was terribly impressed: my pork belly and black pudding had been coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried into near oblivion; Duncan’s onion tart was enlivened by a big dollop of beetroot relish, but the flavours were drowned by the strength and saltiness of the accompanying slice of olive bread.
Our main courses were a definite improvement, with Duncan’s grilled fillet of wild halibut with mash, greens and hollandaise sauce a nicely judged combination in which the fish was placed centre-stage. If there was one gripe, it was that the fillet of halibut, while perfectly cooked, was a little on the small side.
The same, however, could not be said of my ashet of ox cheek, which consisted of half a dozen huge boulders of tender meat – or roughly enough to feed a family of four for a week. Even someone with as decent an appetite as mine really struggled, although it was definitely worth the effort.
When it came to pudding, Duncan found his cranachan broken down into a trio, with the star turn being a sublimely light, creamy glass packed full of berries but without a trace of whisky: perfection for Duncan, a little bit wide of what my palate would have been expecting. My clootie dumpling was a formidable chunk of doughy, sultana-studded Caledonian goodness, which came complete with just about enough custard to overcome the dish’s inherent stodginess.
So, what are we to make of it all? There were undoubtedly some good points: the building and the dining room are certainly impressive, and the hotel staff were extremely helpful. The night we visited was apparently one of Wares’s two evenings in the kitchen, and there were some unmistakeable signs of his presence.
Yet there were also a frustratingly large number of glitches in the machine. The menu was ridiculously difficult to read, some of the prices were eye-wateringly high (the venison stalker pie, a gastropub staple, was £19) and the service was so glacial that I not only took the once-a-year option of not leaving a tip but mentioned it to our waitress when she asked how the meal was – not that she seemed unduly concerned. Our meal left me with a nagging sense of disappointment at just how close Houstoun House is to becoming a real gastronomic draw in an area that could do with more restaurants. But for the time being, it’s close, but no sign of a cigar.
Uphall, West Lothian (0844 879 9043, www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk)
Starters £6.50-£9 Mains £14-£22.50 Puddings £6.95 Cheese £9
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