NOT everyone liked him, but to those who met him, Pete Gottgens was unforgettable. A brash, noisy South African, his passion for food was of the bombastic, in-your-face variety, but boy could he cook, weaving magical spells in the kitchen, beguiling virtually everyone who was lucky enough to sample his fare.
Indeed, he was single-handedly responsible for transforming Ardeonaig from a dilapidated drovers inn and sometime fishing hotel on the southern banks of Loch Tay into one of the most popular top-end dining destinations in Scotland.
Sadly, however, despite what looked like a bulging reservations book, the chef-patron’s career in Scotland hit the skids when the bank stepped in during the credit crunch and the much-expanded Ardeonaig was put up for sale. Taking on anywhere so idiosyncratic and so indelibly linked to its former owner was always going to be a tricky task, with Gottgens’ influence so evident in the five thatched rondavels – Afrikaans for oval hut – in the hotel grounds overlooking Loch Tay.
Yet less than a year after the South African was back on the other side of the Equator, a new owner had reopened the hotel and has been making a very decent fist of running it ever since. Adamo Hotels is owned by entrepreneur Euan Snowie and at first sight it wasn’t an obvious fit given that Ardeonaig is a remote country hotel that trades on its outstanding fine dining to attract wealthy customers looking for a bit of R&R, while the company’s two mid-market hotels in Bridge of Allan and Stirling are skewed towards the corporate market.
Snowie squared the circle by drafting in James Payne, an urbane and knowledgeable Londoner and former sommelier who had worked at Ardeonaig with Gottgens but who had previously worked at two Michelin-starred The Square and Le Pont de la Tour in London before going on to ply his trade at Sharrow Bay in the Lake District and at Scottish culinary mainstays The Three Chimneys, Kinnaird and Kinloch House. Payne’s input since coming back to Ardeonaig has been subtle but unmistakable: the rondavels have been rechristened shielings, the prints of the high veldt in the main dining room have disappeared and the chilly basement dining area has been mothballed.
If the actual fabric of Ardeonaig was sufficiently sparkly new not to need a fundamental overhaul, the challenge was always going to be to live up to its former owner’s culinary reputation. The first thing to get the once-over was the wine list, which was almost exclusively South African. Given that Payne’s passion is wine (he worked in France for several years and was UK Sommelier of the Year in 2001) this was a fairly straightforward area to be addressed. Spending time listening to Payne, a man seemingly devoid of hubris and pretention, explain why he paired each dish with the chosen wine was a gentle but remarkably instructive education.
Payne’s other key task was to employ a head chef, and in Ayr man David Maskell he found someone with a good track record which includes a spell learning his trade under Andrew Fairlie at One Devonshire Gardens and then working with Michael Caines at Abode, both in Glasgow. Maskell also spent ten years in Tuscany, and the combined weight of those diverse influences was immediately clear in a menu that drew on tastes from as far afield as California and as near as the next door estate.
The overseas influence kicked in immediately, with the first dish of our six-course set menu turning out to be one of the dishes that won Thomas Keller such acclaim at The French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Not that this cheered up Will, who loathes beetroot, so wasn’t exactly thrilled at the description of beetroot ice-cream with pancetta, walnut and apple. Still, when it arrived his reaction was the same as mine: pure pleasure. The dollop of purple ice-cream was unfeasibly creamy yet had a surprisingly sweet, subtle taste which was nicely offset by the rasher of crispy pancetta, while the candied walnut added a sugary note and the slivers of granny cox apple cut through the whole ensemble with a streak of acidity.
If that was good, the seared foie gras with chicory, which came in what was described as a four citrus nage, was sublime. The foie gras was perfect, but it was the gloriously retro combination with the zesty tartness of the chunks of citrus jelly that really elevated this dish. It also helped that Payne had chosen a beautifully viscous 2008 Rolly Gassmann pinot gris from Alsace that was as velveteen as it was sweet; a perfect choice to straddle the first two courses.
A change of pace for the next course saw a langoustine and salmon cannelloni with fennel and a shellfish reduction which had Will searching for new hyperboles, although I felt the salmon, which was the secondary ingredient and had been ground into tiny flakes to line the cannelloni, was just a little too well done and had a slightly gritty texture.
There were absolutely no complaints about the roe venison Wellington, however, which came with a shallot puree and port and juniper sauce. Beautifully tender, this was the star of the show, although the paired wine – a 2006 Marion Valpolicella superiore Campedelli Veneto – came a close second.
We rounded off with a mango and lime salsa and sorbet palate cleanser, followed by a well-presented cherry and raspberry ganache of Valrhona’s dark chocolate, Tainori, with a cromesqui and croquant. Dense and bitter, it was just a little too rich after such an epic meal and was certainly the least memorable course.
Yet that is hardly a criticism given the consistently high quality of the meal. Will’s much-travelled mother-in-law and her husband had visited Ardeonaig a fortnight before us and had reported back that it was the best meal they had ever had in Scotland, and while ours didn’t hit quite those heights, this was exceptionally fine food in surroundings that never fail to impress. Pete Gottgens may be gone, but his legacy is in good hands.
South Road, Loch Tay, Ardeonaig, Perthshire (01567 820400, www.ardeonaighotel.co.uk)
Three-course a la carte dinner £49.50 Tasting menu (six courses) £60 Vegetarian tasting menu £55 Rating