You might think it shouldn't be hard to track down a sizeable restaurant in the Speyside village of Kingussie, but you would be wrong.
Eventually, after disappearing down two blind alleys, we found our way to a lane at the back of the village, before rolling down the pebble path to the old tweed mill that houses the Cross.
The first impressions were that it was well worth the trouble of getting there. The old mill is a quaint slice of chocolate-box artwork positioned right alongside the bubbling River Gynack, in four acres that have been landscaped in the gardening equivalent of shabby chic. The whole ensemble is instantly captivating.
Yet for all its bucolic charm, the place hasn't garnered an enviable reputation and an impressive list of awards by simply looking the part. It's fair to assume that owners David and Katie Young know a bit about what it takes to amass a collection of gongs – David is a former AA hotels inspector – and the Cross is one of only 25 restaurants in Scotland with three rosettes for culinary excellence, was last year's Scottish Restaurant with Rooms of the Year and is one of Scotland's top 30 eateries in this year's Good Food Guide.
The secret to the plaudits is the Youngs' obsession with using the finest local ingredients, an aim that manifests itself in a painfully sparse menu that changes every day but which always provides two options per course: one fish and one non-fish. With so few choices, the lack of waste allows the money to be invested in buying the very best ingredients, even if it also means diners have to be willing to place themselves in the Youngs' hands. The fact that almost half of the diners on any given night are repeat customers suggests they owners have got this part of the equation right.
The pre-starter of butternut squash soup pricked both mine and Tommy's interest: silky smooth with an almost viscous texture, it had a rich, nuanced taste that augured well for the rest of the meal.
Sure enough, what followed was, by and large, excellent, beginning with my starter of roast wood pigeon with date pure, landana goat's cheese emulsion and caper and parsley dressing. If the pigeon wasn't the most tender I've tasted, it had a dark, rich flavour and, combined with the cloying sweetness of the date pure and the dense yoghurty tones of the goat's cheese emulsion, it produced a simple dish of rare quality.
Tommy's escabeche of wild Scrabster sea bass with cucumber and red onion couscous, meanwhile, disappeared at almost superhuman speed. He's not a man given to hyperbole, though, so when asked how he rated it, he simply replied, "Good, very good, really rather good," from which I think we can take it that he enjoyed it.
If our starters were both on the money, so too were our main courses. My fillet of seared turbot was perfectly cooked, with just an edge of moistness, and came with a simple accompaniment and jus made up of spiced shiraz, marsh samphire, baby carrots and chive potato pure. Not overpowering, and with a salty edge from the marsh samphire, it was a solid dish that was as expertly executed as it was well-conceived.
Tommy didn't fancy two courses of fish, nor was he terribly keen on the polenta cake that formed a key ingredient of the other option. It was a problem that exposed the main shortcoming of such a restricted menu, but with little choice he finally opted for the roast breast of chicken with crispy pancetta, vine tomato fondue, garlic leaves and a large polenta and parmesan cake. Despite his initial scepticism, this was a more than passable dish, in which the chicken was moist and succulent and had been infused with the garlic leaves. Even the polenta and parmesan cake passed muster.
Nor did Tommy's meal end with disappointment, as he wolfed down a smooth crme caramel with poached pear and home-made honeycomb ice-cream. I, on the other hand, was less keen on my pistachio and olive oil cake with baked rhubarb and rhubarb sorbet; the cake was on the dry side and could have done with the baked rhubarb inside it.
Still, you can't have everything, even if the Youngs are trying their best to disprove the maxim. With a relaxing environment, superlatively friendly service and a celebrated wine list all acting as support players to the star of the show – good, honest food produced by someone sprinkled with more than a little culinary stardust – the only mystery about the Cross is its relative anonymity. Not that any of this comes cheaply: with a set menu costing 50, the place is definitely not cheap, but then this is also a reminder that you get what you pay for – in this case, culinary excellence in the most unexpected of locations.
Tweed Mill Brae, Ardbroilach Road, Kingussie (01540 661166, www.thecross.co.uk)
Bill please: Set menu 50
This article was first published in The Scotland on Sunday, April 18, 2010