THERE are a whole bunch of seafood restaurants that so many people have recommended, and which they have pictured for me in such loving detail, that I feel as if I have already been there.
Badachro, Gairloch, Ross-shire
The Badachro Inn, just down the west coast from Gairloch, is such a place, but even the hyperbole hadn’t prepared me for the perfection of its position.
Were it to be in the west end of Glasgow or Edinburgh, the building itself, with its cool flagstones and traditional bar inside, would rate as unspectacular, but dominating the quayside of this glorious little natural Highland harbour, and with its ramshackle suntrap terrace and conservatory, both of which have views on to the water, it is unforgettable. As the sun beats down and a dozen yachts sit on the mirror-clear water while a couple of kayakers work their way past the front of the terrace where several guests’ dogs watch their stately progress, it’s impossible to imagine a more relaxed or bucolic scene.
Indeed, this laid-back atmosphere is one of the two reasons why so many people flock to the Badachro Inn. Many are staying locally, but there are just as many who make the two-hour journey from Inverness for lunch, which leads on to the other reason for the success of the place. Long-time owners Martyn and Lesley Pearson believe in letting quality ingredients speak for themselves, which is just as well because they don’t come any better than the seafood of the west coast. Indeed, this is a record year, something the Pearsons attribute to the revamping of the menu.
The Badachro Inn has a standard menu but it’s a consciously small part of what it offers each day, most of which is filled out in a variety of different coloured chalks on a specials blackboard in the conservatory. This is the real mother lode, the dishes made with the morning’s catch; this is the mark of a seafood restaurant’s virility because the same stuff isn’t landed each day, so why would you expect to be offered the same choices?
Although there’s nothing more reassuring than being presented with proof that everything on the menu is prepared straight from the sea, it was nevertheless disappointing to find that the dish around which the Badachro has built its reputation, its bulging seafood platter, had bitten the dust by the time we arrived for a late lunch. The day’s stock of langoustines and mussels had been exhausted and the next boats weren’t expected in for a couple of hours. “I could cobble together something for you, but it wouldn’t be as good as we’d usually do,” said the guy behind the bar, “so would it be okay if you just chose something else?”
As I was standing by the bar trying to revise my order on the hoof, I earwigged on the conversation between a portly little chap of advancing years who was talking to another customer. It turned out that he’d been staying next to the Badachro every summer for the past 15 years and has developed an almost pathological affection for the crab cakes. So, scratch the mackerel paté and go instead with the crabcakes. And the main course? What’s that you say? The fish pie? Okay, cue one fish pie…
No amount of local knowledge was going to change Bea’s mind once she’d seen the option of half a dozen Loch Fyne oysters, no matter that I protested long and hard that they weren’t genuinely local produce and that at £15 they cost roughly double the going rate. None of the arguments worked, though, and I was even less impressed when they arrived and were hardly outsized examples. Even had they been as good as the best oysters I’ve ever had (at The Honours in Edinburgh if it matters) they wouldn’t have been worth almost £3 each, but good though these were they certainly didn’t rate in that company.
The situation was completely different with my starter of crab cakes, which turned out to live up to the old sage’s billing. Sure they were tiny, but there were three of them and they were so perfectly formed that it was impossible to find fault. Packed with crab and containing an almost fondant potato, they may be about as good as any I’ve ever had.
By now, my monster sulk over the non-availability of the famous seafood platter had dissipated and we were looking forward to main courses of grilled tandoori monkfish on a bed of basmati and wild rice served with a minty cucumber dip, plus my smoky fish pie and daughter Ailsa’s open sandwich of cajun chicken with aioli.
I’m usually a huge fan of monkfish, but this was ever so slightly dry, even if the tandoori part of the equation was commendably subtle while the dip was a zesty counterpoint to the dense fleshiness of the fish. The smoky fish pie was also close to the mark, but missed the bullseye by a similarly small margin; this time it was a little too much potato, such small pieces of smoked fish that it was difficult to identify accurately, and a lack of seasoning. Where the best fish pies contain boiled egg, this had carrot performing the same role to nowhere near the same effect.
Ailsa’s open sandwich, though, was proclaimed a masterpiece by Scotland’s fussiest 14-year-old. It would have been enough that it combined succulent chicken infused with cajun spices, toasted sourdough bread and thick, gloopy aoili, but as it came with huge chunky chips that were unfeasibly light and fluffy inside and almost beer-battered on the outside – “like some fantastic, lanky roast potato” was how she described it – it was elevated to the status of unforgettable.
The same may not have been true of our puddings, but in the circumstances they were as good as it gets. The circumstances were that we were in a seafood restaurant, which joins Indian and Italian restaurants among the pantheon of relentlessly poor pudding providers. Still, the lemon drizzle cake and sticky toffee pudding, both of which were home-made and came with big dollops of vanilla ice cream were perfectly acceptable.
So, too, was the dark An Teallach beer, although the glacially slow service was a tad trying at times. But then we were in one of the most stunning spots on the face of the world’s most beautiful country, the sun was out, the midges were missing and the world seemed to move in slow motion. An unforgettable scene and a memorable meal.
• Badachro, Gairloch, Ross-shire IV21 2AA 01445 741255, www.badachroinn.com
• Starters £5.25-£7.50
• Main courses £10.95-£21.50
• Puddings £5.95