With its stunning views down Loch Linnhe to Castle Stalker, and across the sound to the islands of Lismore and Shuna, the tiny village of Port Appin in Argyll is one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland.
Port Appin, Appin, Argyll PA38 4DE, (01631 730302, www.pierhousehotel.co.uk)
Starters £4.95-£12.75. Main courses £14.95-£36 (grand seafood platter for two £79.50).
Puddings £5.95-£6.95 (cheeseboard £8.95).
On a crisp autumn weekend, we’d arrived for lunch and found the place surprisingly empty, especially compared with the summer, when the little port which serves Lismore is heaving with tourists.
You’d expect to find at least one restaurant in such a delightful spot, and Port Appin not only boasts the excellent and formerly Michelin-starred Airds, but also The Pierhouse, a seafood restaurant with a growing reputation which is right by the harbour. As with Airds, the view is one of its prime draws: the dining room has a panoramic vista across the loch, while the continual coming and going of the tiny Lismore ferry means there’s always something going on.
This whitewashed, single-storey building, with its distinctive turrets, harbourside bar, rooms and restaurant is owned and run by Nick and Nikki Horne, who have gradually taken the place upmarket. They’ve been helped in that by the fact that Nick’s brother runs the renowned shooting website Gunsonpegs, which means that a lot of the tweedy types shooting or stalking in this part of Argyll or across the water in Morvern stay at the Pierhouse, while in the summer the yachties who work their way up and down the West Coast are also much in evidence.
Always relaxed and languid, on our beautifully sunny, autumnal Sunday afternoon, however, the place was surprisingly quiet, with just two other couples in the dining room. We’d arrived for a late lunch to find that several of the most popular dishes were off the menu, with only a couple of oysters left, and those reserved for the seafood platter. Still, at least it proves what we had hoped would be the case; that the produce here is flappingly fresh and straight off the boats which cruise up and down the loch, within yards of the restaurant’s front door.
The Pierhouse is well-known for its Loch Creran oysters, and friends who are regulars there had recommended we try the oysters Kilpatrick, which are topped with smoked bacon, a creamed Worcestershire sauce and breadcrumbs before being grilled. But with none available for the starters, I instead went for the Cullen skink, while Bea opted for the duo of salmon. Mine was exactly as you’d expect; decently stodgy rather than the sometimes thin rations I keep coming across, with just the right amount of leek and potato, accompanied by big slabs of rustic brown bread.
Bea was also impressed with her well-cooked but simple duo of salmon, with a wedge of traditionally smoked salmon from the nearby Inverawe smoker, along with the Pierhouse’s homemade hot-smoked salmon, which was served with a tomato and rocket salad. Again, as with my Cullen skink, there was nothing flashy about this dish, which succeeded because of the quality of the ingredients.
Our main courses were in much the same mould, especially for Bea, who plumped for the hot seafood platter, which came with an oyster, langoustines, seared scallop, a crab claw, steamed mussels, smoked salmon and hot-roast smoked salmon. The last two were like revisiting her starter, but otherwise this was exactly what Bea had anticipated: fresh, perfectly-cooked seafood that reminds us why the West Coast is a mecca for foodies.
My main course was the herb-crusted salmon served with creamed potato, langoustine tails and roasted tomatoes. The fact that this was comfortably the cheapest non-vegetarian option on the menu at £17 gives some indication of the size of wallet you’ll need to pack, because despite its relaxed ambience, your chances of getting away with a bill of much less than £100 for a three-course meal are pretty slim, although the children’s menu is great value. Still, excellence costs and my salmon was nicely cooked; moist without being slick, with the herb crust adding some light and shade while the meaty texture of the langoustine tails added a nice counterpoint to the pink fish.
I was sorely tempted by a cheeseboard, which contained three famously formidable Scottish cheeses in Morangie Blue, Dunsyre Blue and mature Mull cheddar, while Bea decided to round off her meal with a nicely velvety vanilla pannacotta with strawberry and a fantastic rose petal compote.
Ultimately, though, I decided two blue cheeses was too much for me, and instead opted for a heavy baked Belgian chocolate tart which was almost saved by the accompanying Drambuie parfait, but which was still a little on the heavy side for me.
It’s also worth mentioning the wine list, which was put together by Master of Wine Jonathan Pedley, and which is particularly strong on the white wines. We opted for one of the houses whites, a J Moreau chardonnay which was sufficiently versatile to cover the whole gamut of dishes we chose, and were pretty happy with the end result.
In fact, despite some misgivings about the prices and some nervy service, this was a pretty satisfactory meal. The views are to die for, the atmosphere is enjoyably laid-back and, most importantly of all, the reliance on the quality of the main ingredients makes this seafood restaurant a destination worth travelling to. n