THE old clan system may be a historical relic, but in one corner of the Trossachs it’s making a comeback courtesy of the Lewis family.
Mhor 84 Motel
Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Stirling FK19 8NY (01877 384 646, mhor.net/mhor84-motel/)
Starters £4-£9.50 Main courses £7-£20 Puddings £2-£3.75
As you pass through Callander and the surrounding area, you can’t help but notice how Mhoreish the whole place has become. There’s Mhor Fish, Mhor Bread, Monachyle Mhor and now Mhor 84. As blues chanteuse Carmel famously didn’t say, they’re giving us Mhor, Mhor, Mhor…
Anyway, once my better half had tired of my stale Eighties musical references (which never takes long, believe me), I got down to telling her about the Lewises. They’re an extended family who moved from near Caerphilly in Wales way back in the mists of time when Tom, the culinary genius of the outfit, was a teenager. The family set about turning Monachyle Mhor, a lovely house and small estate by the banks of Loch Voil, into one of the country’s top boutique hotels, and they have succeeded to the extent that they won last year’s Spirit of Scotland award for Business.
Now that Tom is rightly acknowledged as one of Scotland’s finest chefs, Monachyle Mhor is invariably full, even in the depths of winter. With the mother ship ticking over and no longer enough to contain the family’s entrepreneurial impulse, Tom and wife Lisa, plus brother Dick and partner Mhairi Taylor (a well-kent face in Glasgow’s West End where she’s the owner of trendy eateries Delizique and Cafezique), have been spreading their wings. First they opened a bakery where they hand-make artisan bread, and then they took the plunge with a posh chippy, complete with wet fish counter, sparkling water in the batter and beef dripping in the deep-fat fryer.
The Lewises’ latest venture involved buying a run-down roadside hotel at the head of the Balquhidder glen. Renamed Mhor 84 in a reference to the nearby A84, it has been a huge success, and was full of customers on a sunny Sunday when we arrived with friends Bob and Barbara and two of their children. The place is modern and has been done out in simple but tasteful fashion by Lisa. There’s a small bar, off-white walls, wooden floors, locally stalked stags’ heads on every wall and mismatched metal chairs alongside thin, rustic tables that have been rescued from schools and science labs. Everything reeks of home-crafted forethought and if it wasn’t so well done it would be in danger of being twee, but instead it just exudes a subdued, homely elegance.
While that attention to the decor has been a part of the Lewis family’s success, their real triumph has been a gastronomic one built around the use of local ingredients and Tom’s virtuosity in the kitchen. The large Mhor 84 menu delicately tiptoed along the fine line between containing sufficient favourites to keep the punters happy and enough flourishes to avoid becoming run-of-the-mill. Sadly, they’d sold out of steamed razor clams with chorizo and the whole brown crab with saffron aioli, which narrowed our options.
Nevertheless there were plenty of choices, with Bea kicking off with a wonderful starter of thin-cut sourdough toast topped with Arran Blue cheese, avocado and toasted walnuts to which she awarded a perfect ten. Bob’s bowl of seafood chowder contained large chunks of haddock, but had a curious saffron sheen, a watery consistency and verged on bland.
I’d ordered the eggs Benedict and had asked for the ham to be replaced with smoked salmon. Instead, when it finally arrived, it contained smoked salmon and ham on top of two slices of toasted sourdough bread. The ham was particularly good and the smoked salmon wasn’t far behind, but the whole ensemble was spoiled by the fact that the dish was lukewarm and the egg no longer runny. It had clearly been sitting for a while.
Our main courses were a step downwards. Bea’s smoked mackerel salad consisted mainly of potato salad, plus a few leaves and small chunks of smoked mackerel, while Bob’s beef burger was tasty enough but fell apart at the first touch of a fork. Barb and I had the mussels in chilli, garlic, coriander and lime, and found the small mussels overcooked and swimming in a sauce so oversalted as to make it virtually inedible. Sadly, the children’s meals weren’t up to much either: Trevor’s langoustines were so overcooked they had begun to get mushy around the edges, while Tiffany’s mountainous bowl of macaroni cheese contained lots of watery macaroni and very little cheese. The nippers rounded off with cakes (the only option) with Tiff going for a gorgeous French Fancy and Trev piling into a wonderfully gooey meringue with Chantilly cream.
Although the meal was sensibly priced, the portions generous and the surroundings perfect for Sunday lunch, the slow service meant we didn’t have much choice but to linger longer. We sat down at 1.15pm, received our starters at 2pm and our main courses at 3.15pm before eventually leaving three hours after sitting down.
Of all the people in Scotland’s gastronomic community, there are few folk I have as much time for as the delightful Tom Lewis. Not only did he once teach me how to make perfect scrambled eggs (use a pan of boiling water as the heat source since you didn’t ask), for which my family will be forever grateful, but Monachyle Mhor remains one of my dream weekend destinations. This meal, however, felt like the fabric was beginning to fray at the edges.