I VIVIDLY remember my last visit to Cromlix a decade ago. The chunky mausoleum in the countryside outside Dunblane reeked of genteel decline, of a past that was immeasurably better than its present
Cromlix, Cromlix Hotel, Kinbuck, near Dunblane, Perthshire FK15 9JT
Set menu (three courses) £29.50
Main courses £16-£28 (Chateaubriand £58 for two)
Puddings £8 (cheeseboard £12.50)
The sense of decay was everywhere: in the dog-eared wallpaper, the threadbare carpets, the dusty window ledges. The food was non-aspirational fine dining, and the clientele limited to myself, my dining partner and a stentorian old couple who appeared to have forgotten their hearing aids. They roared good-naturedly across the table at each other, completely oblivious to our presence.
I can still recall the top-volume chat of this Darby and Joan of the shires, he a florid-faced old buffer in red jumbo cords; she wearing pearls and with neat grey hair swept back in an old-fashioned bun that reminded me of my grandmother. For two hours they shouted at each other about whether they should ask Hamish to renovate the ha-ha.
As we walked in through the relocated front door at the spangly new Cromlix, fresh from a multi-million pound renovation under its new celebrity owner, tennis star Andy Murray, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast. The difference was quite remarkable: the hotel’s public areas had been a notably sympathetic root-and-branch overhaul (albeit not one that would merit its rather embarrassing gong at the Hotel of the Year awards after less than three weeks of trading).
The restaurant itself is housed in a glorified new-build conservatory and is different in almost every regard to its Victorian mothership: lighter, less traditional, with blingy accessories in the bar. It is an unmistakable gear-change from the grand old country hotel next door. Its construction was a bold move, and also a sensible one: the glass ceiling allows light to flood in, while the huge picture windows looking out onto the grounds and tennis courts give a sense of dining within touching distance of nature.
The restaurant is run by Inverlochy Castle Management International and their venerable figurehead Albert Roux, but the style is a notable departure from their other properties. Where places such as Inverlochy Castle, Greywalls and Rocpool Reserve have merely updated the existing dining facilities, the Roux operation at Cromlix is a different beast. Not only have they built an entirely new dining area, but along one whole side of the dining room there is an open kitchen where guests can watch Darin Campbell, the award-winning head chef poached from One Devonshire Gardens, and his team at work (not that, in reality, you can see much).
The menu’s Gallic flourishes show that while the kitchen is unmistakably under the aegis of Albert Roux, it also bears the hallmarks of Campbell’s time working under culinary legends such as Andrew Fairlie, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing and Eric Chavot.
My starter of pea soup, for example, was a triumph that was entirely reminiscent of Wareing at his best. A bowl containing fresh peas, a chunk of ham hock, a poached egg and broad beans was then covered at the table with a pungent pea soup that combined the sweetness of the peas with the meaty edge of the ham hock and a beautifully silky texture. Bea’s equally simply conceived starter of Dunkeld smoked salmon, fresh crab and Loch Broom seared scallop was slightly compromised by the almost stringy texture of the scallop.
My stuffed roast saddle of rabbit was undoubtedly the pick of the main courses – the discs of soft, yielding and beautifully moist meat perfectly offset by the combination of carrot purée, wild mushrooms and tarragon jus. What Bea’s thick slice of braised veal feather blade in Madeira lacked in presentation, it more than made up for in taste with a rich, percussive flavour that became almost overpowering once the gravy was added.
I rounded off with a gorgeously light cherry soufflé, which was so intense that it completely swamped the flavour of the accompanying pistachio ice-cream. Bea couldn’t make up her mind on a lemon tart that was good enough but failed to deliver the expected kick.
Yet, by and large, this was an assured and enjoyable meal. The environment is a little stark for my taste, and with an aperitif, coffee, bottle of wine and service (which, annoyingly, is included in the bill) you’ll be lucky to get away with a bill for two of much less than £150 if you opt for the à la carte menu. That said, the Murrays deserve enormous credit for saving and reinventing this grand venue. Campbell’s food has found a fitting home, and there’s no longer any talk of Hamish and his ha-ha.
Cromlix Hotel, Kinbuck, near Dunblane, Perthshire FK15 9JT (01786 822 125, www.cromlix.com)