AS WE were nearing the Black Isle, Jon took a call from his mother. Aeons ago, his grandfather was the minister in Fortrose so his mum had grown up in this sleepy little village on the Moray Firth and was now wondering why on earth we would have driven for hours to eat there. When she grew up there, you’d be as likely to eat out in Fortrose as you would to take a day trip to Inverness on a magic carpet.
When she asked for details about our destination, the answer stunned her. In her day, The Anderson was a spit and sawdust pub, and not the sort of place the minister’s daughter would have dreamed of setting foot in for fear of collecting a one-way ticket to the fiery place. But she knew all about it and was having difficulty reconciling her memories with Jon’s description of an award-winning restaurant and gastropub that has garnered a huge following on the Black Isle and far beyond and is now a guidebook staple.
To be fair to Jon’s mother, the story of The Anderson’s transformation from down-at-heel boozer to feted culinary establishment is remarkable. An American couple, Jim and Anne Anderson, had decided to leave Philadelphia in search of a better place in which to bring up their kids. A worldwide search for their nirvana followed, which saw them discount places as grotty as Tuscany and Thailand and culminated with them settling in Fortrose ten years ago.
It’s a decision they have never regretted, and which has cheered up more than a few locals and visitors to the Black Isle too. Fortrose is a quaint village of houses built of red stone and is based around the remains of the 13th-century cathedral, but the fishing boats in the harbour and the nearby salmon rivers also give a clue as to why the Andersons have thrived in this out of the way corner of the world, with keen angler Jim regularly serving up fish he has caught himself.
The first thing they did when they arrived was to give The Anderson, which has a prominent position on a crossroads at the centre of the village, a revamp. The result is an eclectic décor, with a smart 50-seater restaurant to your left as you walk through the front door, and a green-walled bar at the rear of the building. With the walls groaning under the weight of vintage food and booze advertising boards, the place has a nicely relaxed, bohemian ambience.
Nor is the place just known for its food. While Anne runs the kitchen, Jim is a beer and whisky enthusiast who has brought in 240 whiskies, while the pub also serves 120 Belgian beers, a huge roster of real ales (319 since 2003) and a £30,000 wine collection that has a New World bias but which contains everything from a £15 house wine to a £365 Château Margaux.
However, it’s the food that draws people. So many Scottish restaurants adopt a safety-first homogenous approach, with the same clutch of dishes appearing so often that it sometimes feels as if it’s impossible to choose anything that you haven’t eaten a hundred times before, but that’s not a complaint you could make about The Anderson. Whether it’s Tokyo Fried Squid, Texas-style Smoked Venison Chilli, Memphis Bar-Be-Que Chicken or Anne’s Mother’s Mother’s Porchetta, their menu is bursting with a dizzying range of options that puts virtually every other menu in Scotland to shame.
And even if one of the usual suspects does appear on the menu, there’s invariably a twist: Anne makes the black pudding that accompanies the scallops, for instance, while the mussels are served with a sauce of Ullapool smoked cheddar and Orval Belgian Trappist ale. The Andersons even brought a slice of Philly with them: if you can eat the Megaburger (two 12oz steak burgers topped with two slices of haggis, two rashers of bacon and two fried eggs) in 20 minutes your name goes on the wall alongside the one person who has succeeded and the legions who have failed.
I started with a huge bowl of pea-green, chilli-hot New Orleans seafood gumbo which blasted open the airwaves, even if a few more king prawns would have made it an even more enticing proposition. Jon was equally enamoured of his salt and chilli whitebait, which was a Szechuan spin on the London favourite in which the palpably fresh sprats had been quick-fried with onions and chillis.
Much as I’d enjoyed my gumbo, my main course of Pyrenees rabbit was an even more impressive dish in which the succulent rabbit loin was stuffed with chorizo and apple, served with a ragu simmered in red wine. I order rabbit virtually every time I see it on a menu, and this was as good as I’ve ever tasted.
Jon wasn’t so taken with his choice of Mildred Pierce’s Fried Chicken & Waffle, which consisted of beautifully moist southern-fried chicken served on a sweet potato waffle with maple syrup. That said, it’s difficult to have too much sympathy with someone who doesn’t have a sweet tooth yet orders a dish including syrup: I’ll happily mix sweet and savoury, and enjoyed a bite of this dish immensely.
If there was one mild disappointment at The Anderson, it was pudding. Both the warm apple cake with caramel sauce and vanilla ice-cream, and the warm butterscotch and banana pudding with pistachio ice-cream, were surprisingly ordinary. They may have had a nice soggy texture but their flavours lacked the intensity of the previous dishes. Still, at least we rounded off on a high as Jon ordered coffee so strong you could stand a spoon up in it, while I went for Ca Phe, the sweet and strong Vietnamese drink that is half coffee and half condensed milk. It was a memorable way to finish an excellent meal of global reach served in the most unexpected of surroundings.
Union Street, Fortrose, IV10 8TD; 01381 620236; www.theanderson.co.uk
Starters £5-£7.50. Main courses £8.50-£25. Puddings £6 (cheeseboard £8).