THE place is slightly dog-eared and old-fashioned – it’s too unconscious to be called kitsch – but there’s a good atmosphere, writes Richard Bath
Kilmartin, Argyll PA31 8RQ (01546 510 250, www.kilmartin-hotel.com)
Starters £4.25-£8.95; main courses £9.65-£18.55; puddings £5.25-£5.55
Regular readers of this column know that it’s rare that we review a restaurant on spec – I can count the number of times on one hand from several hundred visits – rather than as a result of a recommendation, but we decided to make an exception in the case of the Kilmartin Hotel, a building that I’ve passed countless times down the years. Newly whitewashed, it looked enticing and, besides, on a tour of the west coast and having skipped lunch, it was time for an early evening meal.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Kilmartin, a beautiful little village just north of Lochgilphead on the Oban road. This usually feels like one of those lesser-known corners of Scotland, an area which is rich in history but low on tourists. On this occasion, however, a blissful August weekend meant that the roads were thick with motorhomes and cars towing caravans as the nation flocked to the coast for one last hurrah.
The old church across the road from the hotel was empty, as was its large graveyard containing some of the most interesting medieval tombstones in the country, the so-called Kilmartin Stones. For anyone visiting the area, this should be a must-see. Outside, on the village green with a backdrop of panoramic views out towards Loch Craignish, a teenage girl practised shinty, the rhythmic thwack of her caman as it hit the leather ball providing the backing track for our graveyard meanderings.
The hotel is a venerable old inn which is apparently being overhauled and modernised, a process that feels very much like a work in progress. The bar through which you enter is dark and narrow, but the place is full of people and clearly doing a phenomenal trade. Despite not having a reservation, we’re quickly escorted past families enjoying bar meals through to “dining room number four” via a dark corridor, where we’re given a table in the centre of a room which is light enough, but has a dingy edge thanks to its low ceilings.
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The place is slightly dog-eared and old-fashioned – it’s too unconscious to be called kitsch – but there’s a good atmosphere, even if some of the waiting staff appear to be a little frazzled and keen to coax us through the experience as speedily as possible.
On either side of us are two tables with differing views of their meal: to our left is a group of local female pensioners who make no secret of their displeasure as they keep sending dishes back and asking pointed questions; to our right are four Aussies from Brisbane who are noisily impressed by the quality and sheer size of the dishes that arrive.
We tread a middle path: the dishes we choose from an enormous but surprisingly expensive menu are undoubtedly gargantuan, but the quality is hugely variable. That much was obvious from the off, with daughter Ailsa eulogising about her wagon wheel-sized disc of warm goats cheese, which comes with a sweet red onion chutney and shop-bought oatcakes, with salad. Eldest son Ollie is similarly impressed with his three scallops wrapped in pancetta – although I try one and struggle to believe that they are indeed fresh from Mull as claimed – while I recoil at the £8.95 price tag.
Youngest son Lochie’s ribs are fine, but out of a packet, while Bea’s vast bowl of slightly overcooked black pudding and bacon salad is all jumbled together, inelegantly served but good honest pub grub. I start with the pan-fried wild mushrooms and spinach in garlic cream sauce on toast, and seriously doubt that the mushrooms are wild. For £7.55 this is a little disappointing: again, there’s no quibble with the size of the helping, but it’s a creamy melange that is surprisingly light on flavour and lacks any hint of garlic.
As we move onto our main courses, the meal heads downhill. Ailsa’s red oasis of Thai curry is atop a massive desert of boiled, coagulated rice, while the curry is so bland and the chicken so bone dry that she reckons it qualifies as sub-school dinners fare. Her poppadom is so soggy that it’s like trying to chew wet newspaper. Bea’s stir-fry chilli duck breast in a hoi sin sauce is extraordinarily spicy, comes with a similarly ridiculous helping of boiled rice and again the duck is dry. She is unimpressed.
Lochie’s burger with bacon is dry and his chips are lukewarm, but at least Ollie has struck paydirt with a steak pie that consists of crisp, golden pastry atop succulent chunks of steak and rivers of rich gravy. Nor am I unhappy with my main course of lamb shank with red cabbage and roasted new potatoes, all served with lots of rosemary-rich gravy. But then it does cost £17, which is top dollar for pub grub in the back of beyond.
By the time we reach puddings, the size of the portions has taken its toll. Ailsa and I are like the last two contestants standing in some crazy contest of culinary attrition; although we’re the only ones who can even contemplate pudding, our jaws drop when two thousand-calorie sundaes arrive at the table. Ailsa has chosen the chocolate marshmallow and Mars bar ice-cream sundae, and even her legendary and previously limitless appetite for anything containing chocolate begins to falter as she encounters a succession of frozen Mars bar icebergs encased in ice-cream. I slowly plough through a mixed berry, meringue and raspberry ripple ice-cream sundae, mentally making a note to double the length of the dog’s walk that evening before surreptitiously letting my belt out a couple of notches.
We don’t so much leave as waddle away, having eaten ourselves to a standstill. Kilmartin remains a beautiful town and while our meal at its hotel was average at best, we will never forget the portions designed for Andre the Giant and his even bigger brother.
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