BACK in the day, Arisaig House used to vie with Inverlochy Castle for the title of the finest hotel on the west coast.
Arisaig, Lochaber PH39 4NR (01687 450 730, www.arisaighouse.co.uk)
Set menu £24.40 (two courses), £29.50 (three courses). £5 supplement for cheeseboard
Back then, it was a Relais & Chateau establishment with a staff of 40 and a level of service that would put many five-star city centre businesses to shame. And then, suddenly, its owner, Ruth Smither – much like Constance Cluett Ward at the Michelin-starred Kinnaird near Pitlochry – decided that she’d like Arisaig as her house and the hotel was no more.
Frankly, it’s not difficult to see why she wanted to keep Arisaig House to herself. Designed in the arts and crafts style, and reminiscent of Greywalls in Gullane, it’s a bright, breezy and perfectly formed 1930s mansion in a world where forbidding Victorian gothic piles are the norm. Situated on the road to the isles amid one of the best gardens on the west coast, it’s perched up on the hill just south of Mallaig overlooking a beautiful bay, with uninterrupted views out to Moidart and Ardnamurchan, and with the small isles of Muck, Rhum and Eigg lingering in the background.
It is, in short, idyllic, so it’s not difficult to see why sisters Emma Weir and Sarah Winnington-Ingram fell in love with the place, with Weir buying it for her sister to run when it came up for sale four years ago. Edinburghers who spent every minute of their childhood holidays at their nearby cottage, they know the area inside out and have deep roots locally. After years running the catering for weddings at Harburn House near Livingston, Winnington-Ingram fancied a change, moved up to Arisaig, the hotel where she spent her wedding night, and got the challenge she craved in spades.
A family affair – eldest daughter Kitty works front of house while her younger sister Lara fills in as an occasional commis chef in the kitchen – Arisaig House has been updated, with the addition of lots of modern land and seascape oil paintings to go alongside the original Jemima Blackburn paintings, but the fabric of the place is essentially unchanged from its heyday. What has altered beyond recognition, however, is the ambience: informal and relaxed, it’s more like being in someone’s home; in fact there is virtually nothing by way of signs or notices to suggest that you’re not in a private house. It is certainly a country mile from the old buttoned-up establishment with legions of staff who were told to be neither seen nor heard.
That laid back approach also extends to the food side of the operation. Dinner is still served in the formal, wood-lined dining room overlooking the sea, but the atmosphere is somehow still resolutely relaxed. Winnington-Ingram describes herself as a cook rather than a chef, and has been determined to price the menu so that it’s within the reach of the locals rather than reserved for well-heeled tourists.
Those two factors would make you think that the menu would be fairly utilitarian and rustic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, the options were relatively limited, with three per course, and a set menu price of less than £30 for three courses, but this was undoubtedly accessible fine dining rather than posh comfort food.
We started with an impromptu amuse bouche consisting of a plate of Great Glen venison charcuterie, which included chorizo, bresaola and chilli-infused venison salami. It was a fitting way to start the meal given that the area is hoaching with deer; in fact a stag wandered through the gardens as we sat in the bar nibbling our appetisers (to be followed soon afterwards by a young pine marten, which some guests fed and which now refuses to leave).
Localism has become a great watchword for chefs, with some even practising what they preach. And with the nearest supermarket over an hour away, living off the land isn’t a fancy marketing ploy at Arisaig House, but a matter of necessity. That was reflected in our starters, with Todd going for the wild garlic soup, an excellent dish which was made from locally foraged ingredients and which had that intense, almost nutty flavour you get from wild garlic. It helped that it was accompanied by some gorgeously fresh dark brown bread that had a light texture and an almost sweet flavour.
I plumped for the three slices of mousseline of scallops landed at nearby Mallaig and was blown away. Light, moist, with a gloriously silky texture, they were studded with salmon roe and topped with a Parmesan crisp. Marvellous.
Our main courses were equally local, with Todd choosing the salmon and monkfish in a mussel, lovage and whisky broth while I went for the seared venison from a neighbouring estate, which came with spicy beetroot and chive potato cake. Healthy-living soul that he is, Todd asked for a green salad and soon unearthed the fact that Winnington-Ingram, who is also a keen gardener, grows all of the herbs, vegetables and most of the fruits in her walled garden, defying the west coast weather with an ingenious array of poly-tunnels. Even the whisky comes from Adelphi, which has just built a distillery at nearby Ardnamurchan.
The chief ingredients of our main courses were, however, sourced from the nearby seas and hills. Todd’s nicely cooked salmon and monkfish sat in a puddle of creamy sauce with the slightest hint of whisky, while the interior of my two thick slices of venison was less crimson than I’d normally like, but there was no denying that the meat was succulent, moist and well cooked.
I rounded off with a gingerwine and lemongrass panna cotta with a ginger jelly, which turned out to be an interesting variation on the usual theme; and Todd had a thin slice of incredibly dense and heavy torte made from extraordinarily dark chocolate, which immediately undid all the good waist-preserving work done by his green salad.
We left well satisfied by a meal that had been convivial, relaxed and which was a definite departure from the Arisaig House of old, but which more than lived up to the grand old hotel’s storied history. n