A FRIEND in Fife has long been recommending Craigsanquhar to me, and I’ve always been pretty receptive. After all, what’s not to like about a faded but lovely old country house that serves essentially traditional food but where the chef is noted for his ability with meat and game?
From her description, the only drawback was some mildly eccentric service and the fact that your party has a high chance of eating alone.
Still, I’ve always been intrigued, not least because I have two foodie friends who were born and bred a three-iron away, yet they just look vacantly at me if I ask about the place. If I had picked their brains about the Peat Inn, the Cellar in Anstruther, Craig Millar in St Monans or Balbirnie in Leslie, they could have given me chapter and verse. But when it came to Craigsanquhar they were uncharacteristically mute. I couldn’t believe two Fifers had never heard of a place at which my friend had spent so many happy evenings, so it was time to investigate.
It turned out Heddy hasn’t actually been to Craigsanquhar for three or four years (having young kids can do that to you), and was raring for a chance to go back. It also transpired that the hotel has had something of a makeover in the interim, so it would be something of a voyage of discovery for both of us.
In fact, voyage of discovery was about right: we had agreed to meet at the hotel for lunch, but finding the hamlet of Logie when you’re making a lone Luddite stand against sat nav is a hideously complicated business. At various stages of charging around the mud-obscured back roads of the Howe of Fife, I felt so divorced from civilisation that if I’d come across Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight carrying their canoe across the road I wouldn’t have been altogether surprised. Perhaps this explains why so many locals have yet to darken Craigsanquhar’s doors.
Eventually, though, I arrived at a pair of pillars on which there were two brass plaques that told me I had arrived. A small road led through neatly manicured Capability Brown-style grounds and soon revealed a beautiful 18th-century house made of light-coloured dappled sandstone.
Inside, Craigsanquhar is pretty much as described: a Georgian gentleman’s retreat that isn’t quite big enough to qualify as a pile. After a pre-lunch tipple in a rather empty drawing room, we moved through to a toasty warm and pristine dining room that featured a roaring log fire, and with its dark red walls and tasteful Victorian portraits looked as if it was recently decorated. It was formal but not starchy, although it was – perhaps predictably for a Monday lunchtime in October – completely empty. Still, it meant we had one of the best tables, next to the bay windows overlooking the grounds, so it was difficult to get too shirty about it.
Both the evening à la carte menu and the tasting menus looked so inviting that I secretly rued the fact we hadn’t opted to visit in the evening. Not that the lunch menu was unappetising; far from it, in fact. There was a nice mix of country-house staples featuring some interesting flourishes, all of which are the hallmarks of Billy Thomson, the head chef under whom Craigsanquhar has earned two AA rosettes.
Just why became clear when we tasted our starters. My seared duck breast on herb polenta with a ginger and tomato syrup demonstrated that Thomson’s much-vaunted ability with game wasn’t an exaggeration. The thin strips of duck were perfectly cooked and given a nicely piquant edge by the combination of ginger and tomato in the sauce.
I thought Heddy’s choice of cured salmon with citrus and asparagus dressing with dill mayonnaise was a pretty boring one, given that she could have gone for a sweet red pepper and tomato soup or a chicken liver parfait with kumquat marmalade. Not for the first (or last) time, I was wrong: this wasn’t the ubiquitous slick-textured farmed rubbish that’s so often trotted out to keep costs low, but a big, beautifully dry slab of dry-smoked light orange flesh that I suspect came from James Robb’s excellent East Pier smokehouse, in nearby St Monans.
If my main course of braised lamb shank was a bit more firm than I would have liked (I prefer it to arrive just as it falls off the bone), it came with a heap of dauphinoise potatoes and a commendably rich sauce. Heddy’s two surprisingly large seabass fillets were, however, undeniably excellent, and came with a nicely subtle lemon sauce and tomato and basil confit.
We rounded off with warm chocolate fudge cake and a pecan nut sauce that had been recommended by our waitress and was simultaneously far lighter, yet richer, than I had feared; a neat trick if you can manage it. Heddy announced her orange panacotta with fresh raspberries was far too sweet, though I thought it was just right.
Craigsanquhar House Cupar, Fife (01334 653426, www.craigsanquhar.com)
Two-course lunch £14.50
Three-course lunch £19.50 Three-course à la carte dinner menu £36.95 Tasting menu £45.95/£59.95 (with wines)
Rating: 7 out of 10