Restaurant review: Knock Castle, Crieff, Perthshire
It's strange how you sometimes get little hot spots of restaurants opening up in the most unexpected places, and the douce Victorian tourist town of Crieff certainly comes into that category. Despite the recent demise of the curiously under-populated Bank Restaurant and the convivial Red Onion, the town and its immediate environs seem to keep spawning a succession of good eateries.
Drummond Terrace, Crieff, Perthshire (01764 650088, www.knockcastle.com)
Out of pocket
Starters 5.25-6.45 Main courses 14.95-22.45 Puddings 5.25-5.95 Cheese 6.25)
Most notable among these is Yann's, the insanely popular little slice of Chamonix that's doing a roaring trade in the town, but within spitting distance, there's the Comrie duo of the game-tastic Royal Hotel and the Deil's Cauldron, with its memorable wine list, plus the francophile Barley Bree in Muthill, as well as Andrew Fairlie and Cromlix House 15 minutes down the road. For families and grannies, Crieff Hydro also remains a popular destination.
The latest entrant into the increasingly packed local scene is Knock Castle, a huge turreted baronial pile that was built by shipping magnate Lady MacBrayne in 1885 and is hidden away down a leafy, suburban street on the town's western fringes. The house itself, which sits in more than three acres of woods and has views over the Trossachs, has been through several incarnations, most recently as the Roundelwood Spa.
Now transformed into a bijou 30-bedroom hotel, the place has managed to retain the air of decadent splendour with which the Victorian upper classes liked to surround themselves. This is partly down to benign neglect, which has ensured that the beautiful period detailing – high ceilings, ornate cornicing, wood panelling and sundry gothic touches – remain in place. But it's also due to a sympathetic restoration since it was bought last year by Chick Henderson, the serial entrepreneur from Nairn whose interests cover everything from property to helicopters.
One of the first things Henderson, whose son, Jason, combines the roles of head chef and patron, did was to restore his dog-eared building's original name. But don't be misled because it's not a castle in any conventional sense. The second thing he did was ban under-18s, and the third step as part of a 1.5 million investment plan was to start the construction of a rooftop restaurant which, when it is completed this autumn, will have incredible, uninterrupted views across the rolling Perthshire countryside.
For the moment, however, the restaurant remains in a cosy room on the ground floor which is almost the Identikit of the upmarket Scottish hotel restaurant: Black Watch tartan carpet and crimson walls punctuated by big mirrors, oak panelling and huge bay windows looking out to the gardens. You either like this look or you don't (I do, for what it's worth) but it's comforting in its familiarity.
The design of the dining room gives a sense of how Henderson, a hugely talkative soul with an evangelical passion for his project, wants to pitch his restaurant. Sure enough, when the menu arrives, the options perfectly reflect the surroundings: classical cuisine with a few continental flourishes to prove the man knows his onions, not to mention his Kohlrabi spaghetti.
The food, by and large, lived up to the aspirations which, given the scale of the Henderson ambitions, was no mean feat. Our starters set the tone for an enjoyable meal that had just one bum note, with Ollie's fresh garden pea soup with chunks of ham hock congregating at its centre a sign of a chef who understands the importance of fresh ingredients and resists the temptation to over-elaborate. My roasted red pepper and artichoke risotto with a parmesan crisp was a perfect example of that, with the pepper content kept at just the right level to allow the full flavour of the artichoke to come through.
Our main courses were equally well-conceived and nicely executed, with Ollie's perfectly judged lobster, tiger prawn and mussel chowder proving a huge success. My own choice, the pan-fried pigeon breast, was fine – if a little too well cooked for my liking – but the accompanying chicken and goose liver boudin more than made up for that, with a sweet potato fondant and pickled mushrooms rounding off a very solid main course.
The one obvious glitch came with pudding, where my passionfruit brle just didn't work. Instead of the silky smooth texture of the classic crme brle, the dish was a gritty morass in which the ingredients had begun to separate. Ollie, though, was uncharacteristically quiet as he wolfed down a bowl of white chocolate and pistachio rice pudding topped with a warm chocolate ganache, so that I didn't get a look-in, rating it as a nine out of ten.
There is much that is good about Knock Castle and Henderson's cooking, and although my pudding showed he is not beyond the odd aberration, the overall effect was hugely positive. The food also represents decent value, and my only real gripe was that the wine list is overly top-end and could do with some more feminine options to offset the exclusively heavyweight possibilities when buying wine by the glass.
Apart from those minor caveats, he has created a restaurant that can rightly claim its place alongside some star performers in the culinary hotspot that this sleepy corner of Perthshire has turned into.
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 25 October 2009
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