IF ANYONE was in any doubt about the niche which its owners, the Clark family, envisaged Fonab Castle occupying after it opened last summer, one little detail will give you a clue: it’s got heated and air-conditioned dog kennels.
Fonab Castle, Pitlochry
Main courses £10.95-£17.95 (steaks £14.95-£32.50)
Puddings £5.25-£5.95 (cheeseboard £7.50)
Seven-course tasting menu £50 (matching wines £20 extra)
Rating - 8/10
If that’s not a giveaway to five-star destination-venue pretensions, then the big white Bentley parked outside the front door most certainly is.
If it were possible for a turreted Gothic castle to be bling, then Fonab Castle would be it. It’s as if someone had asked Xzibit to pimp their baronial pile, and this is what he came up with. God knows what Lieutenant-Colonel George Glas Sandeman, the stentorian port and sherry baron who had the place built in the late 1800s, would make of it, but to these eyes it has had a thorough makeover without losing its soul.
In short, the Clarks have transformed a property that was a Red Cross hospital from 1915-46, and which then became the most unlikely offices for the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, but have preserved the essence of the place. Some aspects of that change would have been easy enough, especially as it’s not only right next to the A9 near Pitlochry but also overlooks the beautiful Loch Faskally. But if virtually every room and all eight lodges in its grounds have a view out over the loch, they’ve also been surprisingly sensitive with their treatment of the guts of the castle. They may have wrapped a modern spa and restaurant around the old red sandstone, but inside the original building the completely renovated wood-lined rooms mix contemporary flourishes with original features in a way that doesn’t jar or cross into kitsch.
If the library where pre-dinner drinks are served is in the castle and a masterpiece of the fusion between olde worlde tweed and blingtastic purple leather sofas, as soon as you head into the brasserie for dinner you’re in a large, sleek, wooden-floored room where all of the diners congregate at the far end in front of windows that stretch from floor to ceiling giving panoramic views out onto the loch.
This is the brasserie, the casual dining option at the hotel (in fact it’s the only option at the moment as the fine dining Sandemans Restaurant has yet to open). It’s the domain of head chef Graham Harrower, once of the One Devonshire Gardens and Cromlix House, and most recently the Langdale estate in the Lake District, where he ran four restaurants and bars. He’s put together what looks at first sight like a classic brasserie menu, stuffed full of options from around the world and with prices that are far less hair-raising then you’d expect from the surroundings.
Eschewing some inviting options like the twice-baked cheese soufflé and the jamon serrano salad with buffalo mozzarella, Bea instead started with the sticky Asian spiced pork belly and was rewarded with a dish that kept her purring from beginning to end. Like scallops, pork belly has become a ubiquitous starter, but this was unusually lean and was transformed by a thick layer of spicy, sweet coating and the addition of radishes, soy and ginger.
If Bea plumped for a usual suspect, there was nothing run-of-the-mill about my wild rabbit and artichoke ravioli, either in its conception or execution. This is the sort of dish which tests a chef’s mettle, but Harrower came through with flying colours. So often, ravioli as a starter tends to be pasta-laden, dull and heavy, but this was a perfectly judged dish in which the two big orbs of thin-rolled pasta played second fiddle to the filling, while the advertised red wine reduction turned out to be a low-key creamy sauce that was spot-on as an accompaniment.
If my starter was good, my main course of Asian spiced monkfish with coconut and coriander curry plus spiced rice was every bit as impressive. If Bea is a vindaloo girl, I’m a bit of a wimpy korma boy, and was pleased to find out that this wasn’t remotely spicy, and contained a big, beautifully cooked fillet of monkfish. Like my ravioli starter, this was a subtle, understated dish which I’d happily order again.
I’m not sure if the same goes for Bea’s roast saddle of wild Highland venison, which looked beautifully pink but which wasn’t anywhere near as tender as you’d expect of a saddle. Still, if the meat was a little dense and firm, the accompanying fondant potato, buttered kale, celeriac purée, redcurrants and venison sauce did much to try to bring the whole ensemble up to scratch.
The highlight of Bea’s pudding was a gorgeous rum sorbet, but her beautifully smooth coconut pannacotta garlanded with fresh chunks of pineapple wasn’t too far behind. I was none too displeased with my outstanding dark chocolate fondant, a fantastically moist mountain of chocolate sponge which leaked molten chocolate and came with a Baileys ice cream which would have benefited from more Baileys.
If there was one regret, it was that it was a winter’s evening in which the effect of the windows out over the loch was lost on us, although I couldn’t help but feel that some outside lights to counteract the starkness of the interior wouldn’t have gone amiss. But that minor quibble aside, this was a really decent meal at a surprisingly sensible price in a shiny new five-star castle fit for the 21st century.
• Fonab Castle Hotel, Foss Road, Pitlochry, Perthshire PH16 5ND (01796 470140, www.fonabcastlehotel.com)