KNOWING a little too much about people can be a dangerous thing. As we walked in through the front door of Ballathie House Hotel, the first person we saw was general manager Jody Marshall, dressed in shirt and tie.
Ballathie House Hotel
Kinclaven, Stanley, Perthshire
Three courses (and coffee) £44.50
Star Rating: ********
A bustling, restrained and reassuring presence, even from a distance, he gave a more than passable impression of a man on top of everything that happens in his beautiful little hotel. Yet the mere sight of him was enough to make me avert my eyes.
The reason? It’s mainly because the last time I saw Marshall, a chunky South African with a winning smile and the body of a Springbok prop forward, he had his kit off. Yep, that’s right, totally starkers, with only an (admittedly large) bottle of Champagne to hide his dignity. Back then he was calling himself Mr February, the estate and hotel owner John Milligan was Mr December, deputy manager Gail Schofield was Miss January, and head chef Scott Scorer was Mr August. Every time I caught anyone’s eye, all I wanted to do was break into a Sid-James-in-Carry-On-mode grin. I’ve no idea how I managed to restrain my love of the ridiculous and retain a semblance of decorum.
The little things often give a window into the wider view of an organisation, and it’s safe to say that before Marshall arrived in Perthshire from the Summer Isles Hotel a couple of years ago, this grand fishing and shooting establishment was in danger of becoming moribund, haunted by the prospect of a gentle decline into clichéd irrelevance. A man of great drive and attention to detail, Marshall has set about the task of restoring Ballathie’s fortunes with great gusto. The naked calendar in aid of Tayside Children With Cancer and Leukaemia is symptomatic of the injection of energy which is gradually consolidating Ballathie’s place in the top rank.
But if the staff have an extra spring in their step, it hasn’t been reflected in the fabric of the place; rather it’s found its outlet in the level of customer service. The bricks and mortar – Ballathie House is a classic turreted baronial pile in woodland on the banks of the Tay – remains fundamentally unchanged, much as you’d expect it to have been when Queen Victoria was on the throne. The overriding impression that greets you is of a serene watering hole where upmarket R&R is the order of the day.
Marshall’s arrival is not the only important change to have hit Ballathie over the past couple of years. Six months before the South African arrived in Coupar Angus, Scorer made the journey from Gleneagles, where he was a chef de partie, to take over Ballathie’s two AA rosette kitchen. In such a traditional destination, with guests who have been coming for years, even decades, to shoot locally or to fish for salmon on the hotel’s beat of the Tay and at the local rivers of the Isla, Ericht and Almond, the emphasis will never be on reinventing the wheel. Instead, it’s all about meeting the expectations of customers (the majority of whom will be hotel guests) for classic country house cuisine to match the surroundings.
In that regard, Scorer has gone some way to restoring a reputation which was beginning to get a bit dog-eared. That he has been able to do so was obvious after we entered the dining room, complete with ornate linen panels on the walls, and our amuse-bouches arrived. Small, intricate little smoked salmon packages, they were understated and refined, nicely firing up the palate.
In many ways they were the ideal way of easing us into a meal that was restrained, buttoned-up and elegant; in other words, perfectly tailored to its market. Bea’s starter, a terrine of salmon and sole with wasabi mayonnaise, smoked salmon and granary croûtes, was a classic example: artfully presented, it meshed together discordant flavours without ever threatening to overwhelm the senses.
My starter displayed much the same qualities. Arranged with the sort of precision and forethought you’d get if food presentation were a PhD, my pressé of Carnoustie pork with pickled bay vegetables, apple purée and cubes of cider jelly, was as small as Bea’s dish, but also as enticing. That was followed by intermediate courses of a muted elderflower sorbet and an unfeasibly creamy yet flavour-packed carrot soup – both had the desired effect of cleansing palates that had yet to become overawed.
Bea’s main course of roast rump of lamb with savoy cabbage, haggis bonbon, pommes noisettes, and mint and parsley salsa was the undoubted highlight of her meal. Once again the portion verged on the parsimonious, but everything in it was spot on, from beautifully tender and succulent lamb to a haggis bonbon that had a commendably peppery cutting edge to elevate it.
My pavé of salmon was more run of the mill. Along with the accompanying horseradish mash, squid, mussels, broad beans and crispy quail’s egg, it made for a decent main course, albeit a muted ensemble lacking any flavours sufficiently strident to challenge the taste buds. That is so often the country hotel mantra: impress with presentation and the quality of raw ingredients, but don’t include flavours confrontational enough to alienate diners.
Pudding was an extremely solid finale to an enjoyable meal. Bea’s passion fruit soufflé with mango sorbet and Grand Marnier passion fruit coulis was competently done, although I was less impressed with my milk chocolate délice. Once again the presentation was impressive, but while the délice itself was bursting with flavour, the deconstruction of the dish – with pistachio financier, mulled wine poached pear and pear vanilla sorbet all moved to separate corners of the plate – somehow made this dish less than the sum of its parts.
That said, it is clear that Scorer has stepped up to the mark with confidence and no little skill. If this is symptomatic of the food that has been coming out of the Ballathie kitchen since his arrival, it is easy to see how its reputation has gradually been rehabilitated. We will no doubt see and hear more of Marshall and Scorer, although hopefully, this time, they’ll keep their kit on.
Ballathie House Hotel
Kinclaven, Stanley, Perthshire
01250 883 268, www.ballathiehousehotel.com