‘The attitude of the staff was so substandard it utterly dominated our meal’
MY APOLOGIES, but I’m beyond confused by The Lime Tree. I really, genuinely, don’t know what to make of Fort William’s highly regarded restaurant. That maybe isn’t the most helpful start to a restaurant review, and believe me it’s an extremely uncomfortable and strange sensation for someone who generally knows his own mind. But bear with me and hopefully all will become clear.
My issues with the Lime Tree were probably exacerbated by the fact that I arrived at this art gallery cum restaurant with a barrowload of overly positive preconceptions. For years friends in the area have banged on about the place, and even when young chef of the year Euan Sutherland left and was replaced by Will Macdonald, they continued to rave about it.
Jon, a dedicated foodie whose past jobs have included managing a collection of upmarket Edinburgh restaurants but who now lives and works in Lochaber, was the cheerleader in chief. He even takes important clients to The Lime Tree rather than Inverlochy Castle’s Michelin-starred restaurant. Without putting too fine a point on it, he had come dangerously close to becoming an evangelical Lime Tree groupie, but I trust his judgement so I was expecting great things.
What I got instead was the worst service I’ve ever received, with the exception of one supremely rude old battleaxe in a Rothesay cafe. Service is normally a small afterthought that merits at most a line or two in every review, but in this case the attitude of the staff was so substandard that it utterly dominated our meal. By the end of the evening I felt sorry for Macdonald, who we could see labouring away in an open kitchen but whose best efforts were being torpedoed by the inadequacies of his colleagues.
The warning signs were there as soon as the three of us arrived. Instead of the usual warm welcome, there was no sign of anyone, so we sat in the chilly main reception room, looked at the unmade fire and waited. Then we waited some more. Then a wee bit longer. Eventually, a pleasant Hungarian girl with a profoundly perplexed demeanour came to take our drink orders and all seemed momentarily alright with the world.
Ten minutes later, and with our drinks half finished, she was back. “You table three?” she asked. “Er, we’ve no idea,” came our reply. “Yes, you table three, come now,” she barked. “We’ll just finish our drinks and come through in a second,” I said, expecting that to be the end of it. “Come now,” she said, only louder. Much louder. And in an abrupt, insistent manner. We were not being asked through, we were being frogmarched.
We soon discovered that our Hungarian waitress’s command of English simply wasn’t up to the job of taking orders, relaying them to the kitchen and answering the most basic questions. Not only that, she had almost zero knowledge of the dishes she was serving. When we asked what a particular bowl of sauce was, all she could do was to find a menu and suggest that we read the description (it was aioli).
If anything, her boss was worse. Clearly keen to jolly us along so she could shut up shop, she would approach the table and simply talk over us, her paying guests. I’m not sure whether she realised that she was rude, brusque and abrasive, but she was. Todd, an American who owns a top-end boutique hotel, was nonplussed. No matter what you think of the States, they understand the concept of service.
Nor was it just us: we could see the kitchen trying and failing to communicate with its two front of house staff, and just ending up wasting time, standing there with plated food for far longer than any chef should have to contemplate.
I felt sorry for Macdonald, especially as some of the food he was turning out was genuinely interesting and of good quality. My starter of twice-baked smoked haddock soufflé with a lemon and chive cream sauce, for example, was a really creditable effort: light, finely judged and produced so that the haddock didn’t overwhelm, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Todd liked his workmanlike moules mariniere, but Jon’s black pudding (made on the premises), which came with hand-dived scallops and an apple purée, was outstanding: moist, beautifully flavoured and with a deep aftertaste, this was local produce at its simplest and best.
My main course, rustically presented in a glazed terracotta bowl, was also well-conceived if not perfectly executed. A ring of venison sausage sat atop a rich, warming butterbean cassoulet that had been bolstered with chunks of confit belly pork and which was spot-on. The venison sausage, however, while packed with hearty yet restrained flavour, was far too dry and had clearly done some hard time in the oven.
The bouillabaisse, ordered by both Todd and Jon, was also a question of thanks-but-no-cigar. Stacked with shellfish and chunks of salmon, both agreed that it looked good but that it was a flimsy dish thin on both volume and flavour, with a broth that lacked real depth.
I rounded off with an enjoyably juvenile sugarfest called Paris Brest, which turned out to be a large choux pastry topped with toasted almonds and filled with a hazelnut praline cream, which came with a Madagascan vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Yum. Jon, however, was less impressed by a three chocolates bavarois which he dismissed as “nothing to write home about – three chocolate flavours with little taste difference between them and, again, no real depth of flavour”.
It was a deeply frustrating experience, in part because there was much that was good about the food, even if a crestfallen Jon thought it was the worst meal he’d had there in at least a couple of dozen visits. The dining room, for instance, is a great contemporary space decked out in deep, warming reds plus an excellent display of paintings (as you might expect given that the other half of the business is an art gallery) and big chunky furniture that gives a sense of solidity and permanence. It’s as welcoming and convivial a space as I have seen for a long time.
But then there’s the service! Oh my...
The Lime Tree
The Old Manse, Achintore Road, Fort William PH33 6RQ (01397 701806, www.limetreefortwilliam.co.uk)
Starters £3.50-£6.95 Main courses £13.95-£23 Puddings £4.95-£5.95 (cheeseboard £8)