Shock and Awe
NESTLED on the shores of Loch Awe, Ardanaiseig is one of those picture-perfect country houses that could only be in Scotland. Yet if this rambling granite mansion looks like the epitome of high life on the west coast, it wasn't always so.
In fact, 11 years ago the house was on the verge of becoming a ruin. Almost derelict, it was put up for sale, and that's when Bennie Gray entered the house's life. A well-known London antiques dealer, Gray was passing by chance and heard that Ardanaiseig was for sale. Smitten, he decided there and then to buy it.
That night, he was eating out with his daughter, and when he told her of his determination to buy the house she insisted he consult her psychic before putting in an offer. Slightly bemused, Gray nevertheless agreed to go and see the mystic the next morning. He was told that it was his destiny to own the house, but that he should go ahead and offer a far lower figure than he had envisaged. Cajoled by his daughter, he did so, and to his amazement it turned out to be the highest offer by just a few pounds.
The intervening years have seen a transformation in the fortunes of Ardanaiseig. Outside it still looks a little forbidding, but inside it has been completely restored to its former glory.
Gray has overseen the restoration, regularly shuttling up from London with van-loads of antiques, and he has also brought on board Glasgow-based theatre set designer Finlay McLay, who completely revamps the place every two years. It's a combination of talents that accounts for the presence of endless ancient curios and knick-knacks, plus a strong colour scheme that sees some rooms in rich reds and others in vibrant blues.
If that sounds a little gaudy, then it's not: with its rambling gardens, billiard room, lochside location and new boathouse by the water, the whole place has a stately yet homely feel that gives you a sense of how the Victorians who built it would have lived.
However, given how wonderful the surroundings are, and how loudly friends in the area have praised the quality of the food at the hotel, we were a little surprised at the way our meal turned out.
It certainly started well, with a tantalisingly original, palate-tingling amuse bouche that consisted of a layer of liquidised pear underneath what tasted like a layer of Roquefort with crme frache, all rounded off with a topping of ground walnut biscuit. But if that was a sumptuous start, we were quickly brought back down to earth by an insipid velout de courgette that was lacking in flavour and altogether too watery.
This was the low point of a meal that was brought back on track by a sizeable helping of nicely dry, smoked trout from the nearby Inverawe smokery. Even that, though, was undermined by a stack of bog-standard potato salad that would have been ordinary in the most run-of-the-mill coach party destinations, but which looked horribly out of place in a five-star boutique hotel.
Our pre-main palate-cleanser was an interesting coffee sorbet with little doughnuts, which was up to the quality of the amuse bouche (unless you're Vicky, who hates coffee in all its forms), but we couldn't decide what to make of the main course, which was duck breast wrapped in Parma ham with confit pat and date sauce.
The main problem was that the ham overwhelmed the duck and pat to the point where, had it been a blind tasting, the only flavours that would have been identifiable would have been the ham and the sweet overtones of the dark, rich date sauce. There was also the issue of portion control to consider. I've got a big appetite, but the two big rolls of this duck-and-ham combo proved too much: I gave up halfway through the second and saw plenty of other diners stopping long before that point.
The meal ended on a high, though, with an expertly produced hot chocolate fondant that came with a subtle pistachio ice-cream that would have put even Nardini's finest to shame. It was, however, a good job that we both like chocolate fondant as the only other choice was cheese. The meal ended with coffee, mint tea and some truly excellent chocolates in the magnificently comfortable drawing room.
It was a nice end to a meal that had at times been underwhelming, although I suspect that the absence of the highly rated head chef Gary Goldie, who had taken this Sunday night off, may be no coincidence.
Ardanaiseig Hotel, Kilchrenan, by Taynuilt, Argyll (01866 833333, www.ardanaiseig.com)
Out of pocket 45 a head
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