I SOMETIMES wonder whether we really appreciate all the history on our doorstep. Whether we do or not may be a moot point but what’s beyond doubt is that people from outwith the country are clear about what Scotland has to offer.
Links House, Golf Road, Dornoch (01862 810279, www.linkshousedornoch.com)
Bill please £45 (for two courses); £54 (for three courses)
Rating 9 out of 10
That has long been apparent in the brisk trade in Scottish estates among the world’s super-rich (not to mention The Donald’s opportunistic desecration of Menie’s beautiful dunes), but now there’s a growing trend for business-savvy folk from overseas developing high-quality accommodation based around iconic Scottish venues.
The Malaysian-Chinese entrepreneur Dr Sin Chai was the first to really get in on the act, buying the Inverlochy Castle hotel outside Fort William in the 1990s and, in tandem with his gastronomic consort Albert Roux, expanding his stable of five-star venues to include managing Cromlix House in Dunblane, recently bought by Andy Murray. But more recently a trio of top-end boutique hotels or apartment-hotels based around Scottish locations with a worldwide resonance have opened.
The largest is Herb Kohler’s redevelopment of the Hamilton Grand hotel next to the Old Course’s 18th green in St Andrews, with the golf-mad American bathroom magnate, who already owns The Old Course Hotel & Spa, building 26 condos which are now for sale at an eye-watering cost of between £2.2m and £7.3m each. Less expensive but equally iconic is the renovation of Glencoe House, with stunning views down to Loch Linnhe, which has been developed into seven suites by London-based hotelier Roger Niemeyer, whose wife grew up in nearby Ballachulish.
Unlike both its fellow arrivistes – Hamilton Grand residents can eat in the town or at The Old Course, while Glencoe House visitors will have to make do with an admittedly impressive seafood platter until the restaurant is built – the third recent entry into the very top echelon of Scottish hospitality has its own restaurant and own chef.
It’s actually possible to putt a golf ball from the corner of the garden at Links House to the first tee of Royal Dornoch golf course, so close is this new eight-bedroom hotel and restaurant to one of the most popular destinations for overseas golf tourists. Its location goes some way to explaining how it came to the attention of golfer Tod Warnock, a dapper 52-year-old, Del Amitri-loving financier from Chicago who made his cash financing healthcare on Wall Street but who fell in love with the Highland course and village on a trip here almost 20 years ago.
Now semi-retired, he bought Links House – which was a dogeared Free Church manse surrounded by trees and shrubs – a couple of years ago and has renovated it with a tasteful sheen of luxury that would be sure to have the abstemious church elders who built the place almost two centuries ago rolling in their graves. Also a keen fisherman and country sports enthusiast, he has named each room after the area’s salmon rivers – Beauly, Brora, Shin, Oykel, Helmsdale, Cassley, Conon and Carron – and has stocked the library with first editions of the best golfing, Scottish history and field sports books.
But it’s with the dining room where he’s laid down a marker, creating an intimate 24-cover restaurant in an area that could do with a few more such quality venues. Despite the tartan, tweed and antlers, the place avoids being kitsch or twee, with its cupola and picture windows flooding the room with light and providing good views out onto the links.
Warnock has no background as a hotelier, but his guiding principles seem to have been sound, especially when it came to his stress on finding a chef used to dealing with local ingredients. The chef he came up with is 32-year-old Darren Miranda, who grew up in Aviemore and after several years training and working in Europe has spent the past three as the second chef to Charlie Lockley at the Michelin-starred Boath House in Nairn.
The long apprenticeship has produced a chef who is adept at varying the menu every day depending on the ingredients available, or on what he has been able to forage. Our first taste of Miranda’s work was a tiny amuse bouche of cured roe deer fillet which was as tender as it was bursting with intense, gamey flavour. Marvellous.
Before dinner you’re asked if there’s anything that you can’t – or won’t – eat as the evening meal at Links House is run on old-school Summer Isles lines, with all diners eating the same three-course menu. Our starter of confit pork belly with apples and chorizo was solid, with the slightly fatty pork belly more than atoned for by the concentrated tones of the dark red slivers of chorizo.
The main course, however, was a huge step up in quality and invention. It may not have been a particularly big serving, but the fillet of pan-fried John Dory was perfectly cooked, served with beautifully tender scallops and a nicely judged asparagus risotto. All in all, in its understated way it was one of the best dishes of 2013; a verdict with which Jon, a former restaurant manager who has a forensic eye for culinary detail, wholeheartedly agreed.
We rounded off with a pudding of passion fruit soup, compressed pineapple, gingercake and banana sorbet. I’m not normally a fan of such deconstructed dishes, but this worked, the flavours meshing well, although the sorbet would have benefited from greater intensity.
This was a fine meal served in extremely convivial surroundings. It’s not cheap, and whether the portions are sufficient to satisfy after 36 holes or a day’s fishing is questionable, but Links House is a boon to the area here to stay.