Spean Bridge, Inverness-shire (01397 712324, www.oldpines.co.uk)
Starters £4.50-£8.50 Main courses £12.50-£19.50 Puddings £6-£6.50
If you want to head right upmarket then Inverlochy Castle is on your doorstep, but if you’re not the sort of helicopter-owning high-flier who feels lost without the opportunity to splash out £3,000 on a bottle of Chateau Petrus and just wants a really decent meal within ten minutes of town, my local pals reckon there are basically three choices: the Lime Tree in Fort William, the nearby Crannog seafood restaurant or the Old Pines at Spean Bridge.
The only one of these establishments I had yet to try was the Old Pines, and it was an oversight that was finally remedied on a beautiful evening in early June when the sun was still bright in the sky as I drove past the Commando Monument and, just before I hit the Caledonian Canal, turned into the unprepossessing driveway of a tiny country hotel which must have the most low-profile signage of any hotel in Lochaber.
The Old Pines is a firm favourite of two friends who live up near the Local Hero beach in Morar, and it says much that they will drive for 45 minutes just to eat here. In fact it became clear as soon as I sat down in the lounge to await the call to my table that they are not alone, with the owner Ken Dalley chatting merrily to three separate couples who were all obviously locals.
But then the place has the sort of word-of-mouth ambience and low-key, slow-paced atmosphere that draws in locals, with the Gaelic-speaking couple I chatted to in the lounge admitting they came here most months. They informed me that Dalley often picks up diners from their home or B&B and takes them back without charge. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to endear a restaurant to potential diners it’s this sort of palpable demonstration of the lengths to which the Old Pines will go to ensure top-notch customer service. And, of course, car-less customers inevitably have a bigger wine bill.
Unlike most hotels in this part of the world in the summer months, there was just one trio of tourists, three pals from Belgium who were touring the Highlands and had had the place recommended to them by friends back in Brussels. I spotted this partly because I was on my own, flying solo for the first time in over 500 restaurant reviews. It was an interesting experience, not least because it made me focus on the peripheral details of the place as I sat in the comfortable book-lined lounge munching home-made sweet potato crisps and olives while studying the menu and then waiting to be called through to my table. I spent ages wondering what to make of this curious little place, which is a tidy, single-storey wooden structure that looks like my mother-in-law’s house from the outside and a 1970s Alpine lodge from the inside. Above all, it exudes a sort of all-embracing calm. Maybe it’s because the building is all wooden and has relatively low ceilings, or maybe it’s just the fact that by the time the sun gets past the pines that surround the building the light has taken on a curiously dappled quality. It’s a bucolic ambience that was heightened by the view as I sat down at my table, with a babbling burn running alongside the hotel and views out to Ben Nevis making for a spectacular backdrop.
There were two menus, a conventional meat and seafood-based one which was big on game, and a vegetarian menu that was so strikingly inviting that it’s not too much of a mental leap to imagine that Imogen Dalley, who has worked the kitchen for the past nine years while husband Ken takes care of the front of house, is a vegetarian.
As I was on my own, I decided to mix the two menus, and started off with the Mull cheddar and red onion tart from the vegetarian menu. Small, rustic and rough-hewn, it took a fair chunk of time to arrive but was worth every second of the wait: the pastry was beautifully light, the molten cheese tangy without being overwhelming, the portion size absolutely perfect.
If anything, my main course was even better. I often order venison from the menu, but it’s rarely like this. At first the thick slices of venison loin looked a little overcooked, but on closer inspection it became clear that it was so succulent I could easily have cut it with my spoon. It had clearly been hung for a good while, and had that beautifully intense, metallic tang that those of us of a less sensitive disposition love so much but which you rarely find in restaurants. Served with disappointingly bland potato dauphinoise and a gorgeously nuanced jus, it was yet more confirmation of my hunch that this is a locals hangout frequented by folk for whom eating venison is as commonplace as cooking with eggs.
I rounded off with a very decent cranachan with home-made shortbread and a chaser of a solid pear and ginger polenta crumble with crème anglaise: more homespun fare devoid of pretension and prepared for a constituency that knows the difference between good food and food that simply looks good. The coffee, which was black as peat and strong enough to dissolve a teaspoon, capped a hugely enjoyable meal. Maybe, just maybe, I could get into this eating alone lark.