If you are looking for much-feted restaurants on Skye, there’s no shortage of candidates in this most unlikely of culinary hotspots.
Best of all is Shirley Spear’s gastronomic mecca, The Three Chimneys in Dunvegan, while the most loudly celebrated is undoubtedly Lady Claire Macdonald’s Michelin-starred Kinloch Lodge. But after this duo there is a long list of stellar contenders, from high-falutin’ options like Ullinish or the Chandlery in Portree to more couthie establishments like the Red Skye Restaurant and Sea Breezes.
Yet none of them can be busier than the Old School Restaurant. In two hours there on a wet Saturday night in July, we saw at least a dozen people turned away, while others just passed by, pressing their noses against the window before walking on when they saw how full the place was. What’s more, the Old School – which last provided education for youngsters in the mid-1930s, after over half a century of expanding juvenile minds – has apparently been turning people away for much of its 29-year history.
The restaurant is owned, tended and nurtured by Amelia and John Mackenzie, a local couple who work seven days a week from a fortnight before Easter to the end of October, then open at weekends in November and December before closing for January, February and some of March. Just down the road from the Three Chimneys, in the centre of the small village of Dunvegan, on the north-west corner of Skye, they have rigidly followed the seasonal and local mantra that has long prevailed upon Skye, but have added their own USP by proactively welcoming children – which, in retrospect, makes great sense from a former school house.
It works too. When we visited for dinner, around half the people eating had children with them, including a fair smattering of French and Spanish families who were clearly winding down after a European-style long lunch. As any parent will confirm, a restaurant can provide the best food in the world, but if the weans aren’t happy it counts for nought. Just to make the point, there are changing facilities, a £3.95 children’s menu and such an informal atmosphere that the nippers feel instantly at ease.
Not that the restaurant is a family-only zone: there are as many bobble-hatted folk who have just hotfooted it from a day walking in the Cuillins or holidaymakers who have wobbled in from a tour of the nearby Talisker distillery (which is highly recommended) as there are fractious families trying to soothe young and furrowed brows after a day spent trudging around Dunvegan Castle. Nor, it might be added, are the prices for adult fodder particularly cut-price, with most of the starters in the £6-£8 range and main courses nearer £20 than £10 (although, to put this into perspective, the cheapest set menu at thehe Three Chimneys, starts at £60 per person).
Just to show how fresh most of the produce is, there was a large specials board containing all sorts of goodies, and we both chose our starters from there. Bea decided to kick off with the scallops and tagliatelle with a citrus dressing (which came in at a whopping £8.90) while I went for the moules marinières. Both were fine: two classic dishes that relied heavily on the quality of the ingredients and which weren’t let down in that regard – with plump, succulent scallops and a steaming bowl of outsized mussels.
For our main courses, Bea once again went off piste and chose belly of pork with apple chutney and mash from the specials board, while I opted for the hake fillet served with crushed baby potatoes in shellfish bisque sauce. This time it was me who got the better of the deal, with a shiny white and fleshy fillet of freshly landed hake from nearby Mallaig, served with almost a soup of really pungent, fishy bisque that (to my surprise) never threatened to overwhelm the fish and with the excess being absorbed by the potatoes.
Bea’s pork belly wasn’t the best I’ve tasted, though. Slightly oleaginous and not as succulent as I would have expected of this increasingly popular cut, it arrived with a huge puddle of apple sauce and mash that was sufficiently overwhisked for it to double as mortar.
If the meal so far was generally good, pudding marked a quick and confusing segue into the bad old days, combined with a stunning touch of real quality. The good came in the form of Bea’s lemon posset with strawberries, which was virtually flawless: tart on the palate, silky smooth on the tongue, this was a sublime dish that was well worth the admission price.
But if that was good, my bread and butter pudding was dire, one of the worst I’ve ever had (and since this is one of my favourite puddings, there have been many). Sloppy, bland, cloying, doughy; I’d cross the street to avoid this horror.
Yet the effrontery of my pudding aside, the Old School has an undeniable charm and a great ambience that goes a long way towards explaining its undoubted popularity. This is superior comfort food served in a relaxed and friendly environment by a husband and wife team who, if their restaurant is any guide, are rightly comfortable in their own skins.
The Old School Restaurant
Dunvegan, Skye (01470 521421, www.oldschoolrestaurant.co.uk)
Starters £3.95-£8.90 Main courses £14.60-£23.50 Puddings £5.90 Cheese £7.50 Rating
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: West