“Our supplier of local langoustines has got me the most excited,” says James McDonald, 36. “They are the size of baby lobsters!”
After working in Michelin-starred restaurants including Richard Corrigan’s Lindsay House and Gordon Ramsay’s La Noisette, as well as in locations including London and Dubai, McDonald is settling in the Highlands.
He’s the new executive chef at MARA, which will launch on April 26 after a year’s delay due to the pandemic. On opening, they will offer Flavour of Mara, seasonal tasting and table d’hote menus, before the grand launch on May 17, when you can order from all six menus.
This restaurant is named after the Gaelic word for sea, and is situated at the five-star hotel Links House at Royal Dornoch which they dub “Scotland’s most northerly luxury destination”. It’ll be the sister venue to the hotel’s original restaurant, The Courtroom - a more casual brasserie, which will also be overseen by McDonald.
“The food will involve European cooking methods using worldly flavours, but is still heavily influenced by local ingredients and area”, says this chef. ”Balance and quality is my focus. Whether we're creating a tasting experience in MARA or the best burger in the Highlands”.
Each of the hotel’s plush rooms, including Beauly, Brora, Helmsdale, Oykel and Shin, are named after a North Highland salmon river.
It’s a fertile part of Scotland. Thus, McDonald’s aim is to source produce from within 50 miles of the restaurant.
“Many of our suppliers were handed over to me as existing, however Richard Hamblin (head chef at The Courtroom), Theo Creton (head chef of Mara) and myself have reached out to local suppliers that we have wanted to work with for some time”, says McDonald.
The team’s enthusiasm for the Highland larder has resulted in a menu that features Ardgay roe deer, shellfish from Keltic Seafare Scotland Ltd, and Orkney scallops.
There’s also a sharing menu featuring whole Portmahomack lobster, Maorach Beag oysters and two bone ribs of Highland beef.
For those who are sick of the same home-cooked dinners, this is a world away from spag bol on the sofa.
The space features over-sized lanterns, work by local photographers and The Compass Table, which sits 6- 12 diners and “offers a semi-private dining experience”.
Available after May 17, their eight course Tasting Experience menu will feature dishes including slow-cooked Highland Wagyu featherblade, tattie fondant, black kale and beef jus; seared Highland duck breast, confit neeps, watermelon radish and apricot, and a pudding of Embo rhubarb, rosemary and cucumber.
However, this menu’s hero dish, according to McDonald, is “lightly cured Scottish seabass, with wild strawberries, lemon and fennel”.
This chef has been using unconventional ingredients since early in his career.
“My first job was with a chef called Bjorn van der Horst. It was my first taste of Michelin Star cooking”, McDonald says. “The “inspirational” menu was made on the delivery of the check. We would have random ingredients on our sections (sometimes things I've never seen before like transparent baby eels, gooseneck barnacles, live turbot, etc) and the chef would tell us to make something that was not even on the menu. Out of this chaos, we made beauty.”