THE Isle of Eriska at the mouth of Loch Creran is one of those places that crops up in conversation from time to time as if it’s a big secret that everyone else is party to.
It’s a byword for understated luxury; not in the buffed-up, high-profile way of Gleneagles and Cameron House, but in a more low-key, word-of-mouth fashion among those who like their chic to be on the genteely shabby side. It’s where, in short, quietly posh people go to party, albeit quite quietly.
The hotel is on a private 350-acre island reached via a tiny one-track road ten miles north of Oban and then a rickety Victorian bridge straight out of Monarch Of The Glen. The whole island forms the grounds for the hotel, and includes a nine-hole golf course, croquet lawn, spa and swimming pool, and leisure centre featuring an indoor tennis court.
In its early days as a hotel, much of the allure came from its charismatic owner Robin Buchanan-Smith. The former army officer bought the island and big house, which was designed by baronial architect Hippolyte Blanc, in 1973, when only three rooms were habitable, and rapidly renovated it and developed the hotel and island without removing its charm. Whole families grew up coming to Eriska for special occasions; they all say it’s the sort of place that draws you in from a young age.
As we waited to have dinner in its restaurant, we witnessed one of the rituals that gives the place its charm. Each evening, at exactly the same time, bread and milk are put out for the island’s large population of badgers, with two or three of the normal reclusive critters moseying up to the house to trough on the terrace to the delight of diners having a pre-dinner drink in the bar. As hors d’oeuvres go, it’s quite some warm-up act.
The restaurant features contemporary flourishes that mean it’s not your usual run-of-the-mill Victorian country hotel dining room. Back-lit wine shelves, a freestanding shelving unit hiding the kitchen doors, enormous low-hanging 1970s lampshades, plus the striped green wallpaper are all modern touches that make the place feel like a top-end city restaurant (although, strangely, it also reminded me of Restaurant Andrew Fairlie in its mix of old and new).
The main event in the restaurant, however, is the recent arrival of new head chef Ross Stovold. He moved to the island this summer from his previous role as head chef at the Michelin-starred Alimentum in Cambridge. And although Stovold has a hard act to follow in Simon McKenzie, the jungle drums are sounding upbeat about his impact. Our meal certainly started positively, with a sumptuous amuse bouche of Isle of Mull dauphine – a sort of smart cheese ball – with truffle mayonnaise and some gloriously salty, soft bread.
Once we caught sight of the small but thought-provoking menu, our appetites were well and truly whetted, with Bea starting with the coley with curried cauliflower and cucumber while I opted for the pork cheek with plum, sweet corn and red-veined sorrel.
Where Bea’s coley was a surprisingly straightforward, if flawlessly executed, dish featuring subtle flavours and a perfectly cooked chunk of coley, my pork cheek was an absolute joy. Presented as a slice of terrine, the delicate meat was almost foie gras-soft in places, and although you couldn’t see the plum, its flavour coursed through the dish. Very impressed.
My main course was inspired. The halibut was, as you’d expect from a chef of Stovold’s standing, spot-on, but it was elevated by the addition of potatoes flecked with seaweed and tiny navets (that’ll be midget neeps to you and me; why do people insist on calling everyday Scots ingredients by the French names?), which made this a forceful and memorable dish.
Once again Bea’s duck breast and confit leg with kale, blackberries and celeriac was a strong combination but like her starter it was a dish that somehow didn’t challenge her palate or senses in the same way as my starter and main course had. That said, this was top quality, completely in fitting with three AA rosettes.
Sadly, pudding was a more muted affair. Bea was perfectly happy with her vanilla pannacotta, which was paired with a peanut and malt ice-cream that absolutely transformed this dish, while I struggled through a desiccated pudding which was described on the menu simply as “stem ginger”, but which seemed to have lost its way despite the addition of apple and cinder toffee. I wouldn’t be ordering this one in a hurry again.
There is an enormous amount to like about the Isle of Eriska, not least an ambience that was relaxing and not remotely the sort of buttoned-up experience I had anticipated. The wine list is a surprisingly affordable marvel worth spending time poring over (especially the section recommended by Beppo, Robin’s son and the hotel’s current owner-cum-general manager, who clearly knows his sauvignon from his sancerre). Factor in some top-quality work from Stovold in the kitchen, and all of a sudden I was beginning to understand why people might come back to this enchanting little hotel time and again.
Isle of Eriska
01631 720371, www.eriska-hotel.co.uk
£50 for three courses and coffee