WHAT a heartwarming way to start off the new year: a roaring fire at a country pub within half an hour’s drive of Glasgow, sensibly priced food and smiling service.
Loch Lomond Arms, Main Road, Luss
Starters £3.95-£7.50 Main courses £8.95-£19.95 Puddings £5.50 Cheese £8.95
Outside, this corner of the west may have alternated between cold, foggy and raining, but once inside the Loch Lomond Arms, all was well with the world.
Reopened last August after a root-and-branch renovation, apart from looking achingly pristine on the outside (imagine a scaled-down version of the House of Bruar) the Loch Lomond Arms is exactly how an aspiring country gastropub should be. Although it’s a bit too squeaky new, they’ve taken pains to ensure there’s a decent-sized bar where locals and passers-by can get a pint, and there’s a large selection of good beers from local breweries.
Although many of the fellow diners on a Sunday were from Glasgow, which isn’t surprising given the place is about 200 yards off the A82, there was no shortage of villagers kicking back too.
Whether it’s the bar or the two dining areas, there’s a feeling of informality and conviviality throughout. It’s clear a huge amount of thought has gone into the decor and layout, with the result that there’s an eclectic mix of stags’ heads, old pictures of country scenes and sundry Victorian rural knick-knacks scattered around the place. The floors are wooden, the walls are part tongue-and-groove, and painted in muted Farrow & Ball blues, while the tables and chairs are mismatched and aged brown, supplemented by a smattering of big comfy sofas in the bar area. It may still look a little new, but that’ll change soon enough as the place becomes gradually more lived in.
If the owners have been adept at scouring the country and looking at how the best competitors have created a good ambience, they’ve also created an impressive menu. The emphasis is on easy-to-produce comfort food, augmented by some straightforward bistro-style dishes. There are a dozen starters, with all but two being either vegetarian or pescetarian options, while the main courses are split into two groups: pub grub staples like fish and chips, pasta or burgers, all coming in at around a tenner; and then some more high-falutin’ dishes such as lamb shank, haunch of venison and seafood mixed grill, which are nearer £15 a pop. There was also a specials board with a couple of options on it.
I decided to start off with the boudin of quail stuffed with black pudding and served with horseradish mash and a peppercorn sauce, while Alistair went for the smoky fishcake with a creamy chive sauce and topped with a poached hen’s egg. I definitely had the better deal, with two slivers of beautifully moist quail breast which had been lined with just enough black pudding to make its presence felt. It’s surprisingly rare for restaurants to get the texture of mash right, but, despite the fact I could detect no hint of horseradish, this was otherwise perfect: not cloyingly overwhisked, nor rustically chunky. The peppercorn sauce was also spot-on, and came without the usual deluge of whole peppercorns.
We were a little more ambivalent about Alistair’s fishcake, which contained a decent amount of fish but was so hot on delivery we had to wait some time for it to become edible. Sadly, it just missed the mark thanks to a poached egg that had been overcooked, a complaint that also afflicted the fishcake itself, with the consequence that the outer breadcrumb shell was a little hard. On the plus side, the chive sauce was pitched perfectly and ensured the dish was never going to be too dry.
My main course of salmon en croute was another near miss that suffered from the salmon being marginally but unmistakeably overcooked. Once again, however, the mash was perfect and the surprisingly good green grape and vermouth sauce meant it was all edible if not memorable.
Alistair, however, had no misgivings about his braised ox cheeks with roast parsnip purée and creamy mash, which consisted of three cricket ball-sized hunks of meat, leading to speculation about the undoubtedly gargantuan strain of beast that supplied this beef. At their best, braised ox cheeks are a fabulously succulent and much under-rated cut of meat, and these were no exception. This time, however, they could have done with less meat but a richer, more pungent sauce, although it is a minor quibble for a dish that was absolutely outstanding value at just £10.50.
For some reason, neither of us were particularly impressed by the range of puddings, yet we weighed in anyway, Alistair choosing the pot de crème with pistachio biscuit while I went for the Glayva and white chocolate mousse and crisp shortbread. Once again head chef Peter Wilson had proven he is a chef of some quality: Alistair’s choice turned out to be a classic, dense pot au chocolat, while my huge helping of sickly sweet mousse – the most alcoholic I’ve ever tasted – had a slick texture and was beautifully presented in fine-dining style, adorned with spun sugar, raspberries in coulis, a mini toffee apple and wonderfully light home-made shortbread.
The west has often lagged behind the east when it comes to good pubs in which to eat, but the Loch Lomond Arms is following in the footsteps of places like The Sun Inn near Dalkeith, the Waterside Inn at Haddington and the Bridge Inn at Ratho. Thankfully, this inn on the shores of Loch Lomond is also as full of Glaswegians as those Lothians-based institutions are of Edinburghers, which is a testament to the fact that excellence tends to be quickly recognised and rewarded – and excellent is exactly how I’d describe the all-round experience at the Loch Lomond Arms. n
• Loch Lomond Arms, Main Road, Luss (01436 860420, www.lochlomondarmshotel.com)