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Restaurants & Bars 8

Dining in Scotland (and Ireland) in May and June 2016

AGinNoCalif | Oct 27, 201609:03 PM

Set forth below are our recollections of our impressions at a number of restaurants we visited during our recent (May and June 2016) trip to Scotland (and two experiences in Dublin, Ireland). As I have said before, although we believe we have ample experience eating well, we do not fancy ourselves to be food critics, and our comments represent nothing more than our subjective opinions of moments in time. Please feel free to take our comments with a pinch of Hebridean sea salt, and I’ll not be offended if you disagree with or ignore all or any of what follows.

Dublin – “Patrick Gilbaud”: (Dinner) Very fine service; both elegant and friendly, which is not an easy combination to master. Most dishes were beautiful and delicious, and some were actually amazing; however, overall, we felt that more than a few times the natural purity of the very fine Irish ingredients was somewhat masked by slight over-seasoning and over-buttering and creaming, as well as by overly complex plating. All in all, a very fine, but less grand than expected, meal.

Dalkey – “Guinea Pig - The Fish Restaurant”: (Dinner) Dining here feels like you have stepped into the home of a friendly relative – it is comfortable, warm, and slightly worn – and that relative certainly knows how to cook! Very good food, well-cooked and presented, nothing fancy, just fine local ingredients treated proudly and very well. A truly pleasant dinner.

Stirling – “Hermann’s”: (Dinner) Friendly, very young staff serving an interesting Austrian – Scottish mash up menu. We enjoyed some really good dishes such as beautiful scallops, perfectly cooked, each placed on a thin slice of black (blood) pudding and surrounded by a saffron bisque; excellent local beef; and perfectly cooked salmon with pink peppercorns. Wonderful ice creams and coffee.

Stirling – “Portcullis”: (Dinner) Pleasant and classic Scottish pub with warm and friendly service and good, well-made food, such as wonderful smoked salmon, “Highland chicken, stuffed with haggis,” pasta with salmon and prawns, and excellent sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

"Loch Fyne Oysters": (Lunch) A rather casual place, despite its fame and truly beautiful location. Very good shellfish platter, great langoustines and oysters, but just not as wonderful as we had hoped. The salmon on the other hand was great. Service was efficient but not particularly friendly or informative. In hindsight, perhaps it is possible that our shellfish expectations were too high based on what we had read and the restaurant’s amazing location; overall, this was a very good lunch with very good seafood, but we felt it was overpriced and over-hyped for the quality and experience.

Oban – “Coast”: (Dinner) Every dish we enjoyed that evening -- our first and perhaps best “Cullen Skink,” i.e., leek and potato soup with shredded pieces of “Arbroath” smoked haddock; the seared scallops; the char-grilled langoustines; the smoked whisky salmon; and the rump of Argyll lamb -- except for the dessert, was truly wonderful. Mind you, the dessert certainly was good, however we found it to be weak in comparison to the preceding dishes. Clearly there is a very talented kitchen here and it is rightly popular with locals and tourists alike; this was a very good dinner, and we would return.

Oban – “Seafood Hut” (aka “the Green Seafood Shack on the Pier”): (Lunch) As casual and fresh as can be, with outstanding quality seafood no doubt sourced earlier that very morning from the boats tied up a few yards away. Picnic style eating, platters of amazing oysters, simply but perfectly cooked mussels, langoustines, etc. Only the scallops were less than perfect. Unbeatable value and quality and, when in Oban, it’s a must.

Oban – “Ee-Usk”: (Dinner) My shellfish aficionado wife felt this was some of the very best shellfish of our trip, and she is right, the quality was just outstanding. Being different, and more of a landlubber than she, I ordered and enjoyed a surprisingly terrific filet of Scottish beef, which was perfectly prepared (rare +). Service here is another story, it was somewhat chaotic with a very young, enthusiastic and, in my estimation, not particularly well trained staff; the wine service is poor and, please, don’t get me started on what they do with wine glasses. So, I found it a conflicted place, really great food, but handled by what I believe is a under-trained staff. However, as I said, my wife loved it!

Portree (Isle of Skye) – “Scorrybreac Restaurant”: (Dinner) Tiny, good looking, modern-feeling, fine dining restaurant that would not be out of place anywhere. Not a meal to rush through, here is a small kitchen working very carefully and skillfully with the region’s fine local bounty. We quickly took notice and smiled as the meal began with warm rosemary bread and “caramelized and whipped” butter with saffron petals. Wow. Very attractive, delicious dishes followed: an amuse bouche of lovely Vichsoisse with local black salt; fantastic smoked salmon with citrus, sesame and seaweed that reminded me of a fine sashimi dish in Tokyo; oysters with “Bloody Mary” granita; mussels with fennel and thyme; and duck breast and leg with cilantro (stems and all), lentils, barley, and pea shoots. All were really well done! During the evening, we watched as some folks showed up without reservations and were gently turned away because there just isn’t room, either in the dining room or the kitchen, for a crowd. In a very casual town, this is a great restaurant turning out first rate dishes with friendly service and a slightly whimsical feel. We would definitely return.

Stein (Isle of Skye) – “Loch Bay Restaurant”: (Dinner) Self-described as “a contemporary Scottish restaurant with classic French influences,” this was the scene of an outstanding dinner, certainly one of the very best we had in Scotland, and perhaps the finest meal I have had in a restaurant that felt so casual, comfortable, and informal. Indeed, Michael Smith and his French wife Laurence create such a warm and friendly and completely unpretentious atmosphere in this tiny space -- which we reached after a gorgeous, almost wild ride to a windswept tip of the Isle -- that the kitchen’s skill, precision, and passion are almost surprising (had I not previously read the reviews). The tone was set by the fantastic, rustic breads and rich butters, and the tiny “salt herring and mussel nibbles” we were presented shortly after arrival. We chose the six course “Seafood Menu” (after all, mastery of the ocean’s bounty is the source of Chef Smith’s fame), but I asked Laurence if we might somehow, possibly, if they wouldn’t mind, also enjoy the “Trio of Lamb” I had noted and heard calling to me from the a la carte menu. Of course, no problem, not at all, and our six course menu instantly became one with seven. After the “nibbles,” a parade of beautiful dishes commenced: a sublime “spring broth of shellfish” containing the first mussels I actually have loved; then brown crab risotto with a razor clam, fenne, and chile; then a single ridiculously perfect “Sconser Scallop” served with asparagus and hazelnuts; an elegant bourride (classic Provencal stew) with white fish, langoustine, and oyster; then the perfectly prepared lamb, with amazing “Jersey Royals” new potatoes. This was an intoxicating meal, course after course comprised of the very finest local ingredients from land and sea to be had, prepared by a truly gifted chef; a meal that for me was revelatory as I, unlike my wife, do not, as a general matter, adore the “Fruits de Mer.” (And man, can Chef Smith prepare lamb as well.) Dessert for me was a “Clootie Dumpling,” a fruit pudding that I believe once and for all should put to rest all jokes about British Christmas puddings, served with whisky cream, and for my wife an assortment of scrumptious and pretty treats. This was an extraordinary meal, truly wonderful, enjoyed in a very warm and welcoming atmosphere, and we would love to return.

Inverness – “River House”: (Dinner) I was looking forward to our dinner here as I had enjoyed my reservation-making email communications with the Owner/Chef Allan “Alfie” Little. In his messages, he was very welcoming and seemed charming and lighthearted, and the reviews I had read also indicated he possessed serious cooking skills. And that combination of friendliness in the front and talent in the kitchen is exactly what we found during a delightful evening there. Everything is locally sourced, as a matter of obvious pride, and prepared very skillfully and without a hint of pretension. My wife began with a steaming bowl of clams and I had Padron peppers with thinly sliced manchego, which were terrific. Because my wife had so many clams to enjoy, and she enjoyed them more slowly than I did the peppers, I had the pan seared Harris scallops covered with pancetta as an additional starter. Alfie came over to our table, and we all smiled broadly with his warm welcome and the great start to our meal. I so wanted to ask him, “what’s it all about?” but reason prevailed and I refrained. Next up for my wife was a very good grilled filet of sea bass over “Orkney crab and pea risotto” with a langoustine proudly perched on top; I had a fabulous “wild” Scottish beef filet over haggis and potatoes. This was really a fine meal, and the restaurant is so warm and cozy, and the food so good, that we would definitely return.

Inverness – “Rocpool”: (Dinner) Our second dinner in Inverness, in our opinion this place seemed to take itself just a bit more seriously than it should. While it is stylish and crowded with locals, many of whom must have been pre-theater guests, we found it a bit uncomfortable and disappointing (even taking into consideration the impact on a restaurant of pre-theater bustle). Very small and closely spaced tables, and a wait staff that should pay more attention to guests regardless of pre-theater busy-ness (e.g., ask for more bread and, after a rather long while more bread does arrive, but it is sans more butter, and now you wait for someone you can ask for more of that, and then you wait for it to arrive; ask for a wine list, and you wait, wait, wait, until you give up and ask another server, and then it arrives; etc. – it often can be the little things that change the experience). My wife started with a corn and crab soup with mussels, prawns, and scallops, and I had “king” scallops with chorizo; both dishes were very nicely prepared and delicious. For mains, we had a very good loin of venison with Parma ham and haggis, and a very tasty but surprisingly and sadly chewy beef filet prepared in a “tagliata” style, sliced and placed over arugula. My summary note says, “not bad, but not that good.”

Pitlochry – “The Acarsaid Hotel & Steakhouse”: (Dinner) Our first dinner in the lively and beautiful and well-favored-by-tourists town of Pitlochry, and unfortunately the worst dinner we had in our two weeks in Scotland. Wish I had trusted my instincts more as, upon entry, it felt to me somewhat like a retirement home dining room, with a quiet and slightly dispirited vibe, and a hostess who did not have our reservation even though it was she who had emailed me to confirm it. In any event, the absence of a reservation was not a problem since it was mostly empty, despite it being a Saturday night in, did I mention, a lively tourist town. And yet, we stayed. Okay, but perhaps we should have left after the “smoked venison” appetizer, which, in our opinion, looked and tasted as if, rather than being house made, it had just exited a grocery store’s “deli-department” plastic bag. But, as its name proclaims, this restaurant is a steakhouse, and their beef is reputed to be very well-sourced, and so we chose to soldier on. Unfortunately, the kitchen (at least that night) apparently was unsure what to do with fine Scottish ribeye steaks, as ours were poorly prepared, grilled over what I guess must have been too low heat, because they were sear-less, not particularly warm and, even for us, a bit too rare, with a somewhat gummy texture. Nevertheless, I then added to the evening’s missteps by asking if perhaps they might “warm up and cook a bit more” my ribeye, which then was returned shortly thereafter with what I believe any jury would find to be convincing evidence of having been placed in a microwave. In my opinion, this was a negligent, if not criminal, abuse of fine meat. We chose not to have dessert. Based on what I had read in advance about this restaurant, this dinner was a major disappointment because the place has many terrific reviews. A truly puzzling situation. While our experience that night was plainly different from that of diners on other evenings who obviously enjoyed and praised their dinners, I feel confident our impressions are accurate because, among other reasons, we were not alone in our bewilderment that evening. The similarly dissatisfied, eyes rolling, head-shaking, local family at the table next to us not only confided that their dinners also were rather disappointing, they implored us not to judge Scottish restaurants based on this dinner experience. We assured them that this could not possibly happen.

Pitlochry – “Victoria's Restaurant”: (Dinner) For our second dinner in town, we chose to heed the advice of our B&B hosts and we enjoyed a very friendly and quite good experience at the deservedly popular Victoria’s. It reminded me somewhat of a really good, family-run American “diner,” with a wide and interestingly varied, tourist friendly menu (Scottish favorites as well as fajitas, nachos, numerous pastas, pizza, spring rolls, and spareribs!), and a smiling, accommodating attitude – our questions about the dishes were met with, essentially, “whatever you want, we will prepare it as you like.” We enjoyed as starters a wonderful trio of salmon (from Loch Fyne: hot smoked, traditional smoked, and marinated), and I could not resist trying what they call their “Haggis Bon Bons” (haggis rolled and fried in panko and oatmeal, with a whisky cream sauce), which actually were quite delicious. Excellent breads as well. For our mains, my wife enjoyed a very well-prepared venison filet with red cabbage and nicely done potato “Dauphinoise,” and I a very good “Roast Rump of Perthshire Lamb.” For some inexplicable but ultimately satisfying reason, we also decided to have a small and pretty good serving of their tagliatelle carbonara (listen, we were curious; that’s my story and I am sticking with it). Apparently undaunted, we then happily finished our meal with a first-rate sticky toffee pudding and, according to my notes, truly excellent vanilla ice cream.

Pitlochry – “Mackenzie's Coffee House & Patisserie”: (Afternoon snack time) Speaking of ice cream, we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon stop at this tiny place; we found it to be friendly and cozy with great Scottish ice cream and well-made Italian coffee. Their obviously house baked cakes looked very good as well. Would have tried a cake, but for the double scoop cone of “Isle of Arran” brand ice cream! That was really great ice cream.

Edinburgh – “The Grain Store”: (Dinner) Our first dinner in Edinburgh, this charming and atmospheric restaurant is located in the Old Town, close by the Castle on winding Victoria Street. It’s a tight fit inside, but warm and welcoming, with very friendly service. While we waited for our table to be ready, we sampled some great house baked breads, and we found ourselves asking for more during our dinner. The Loch Crenan oysters were very fresh and very sweet, but almost overpowered by the soy and ginger seasoning. Other dishes were prepared better, such as the wonderful house smoked and house cured salmon; a terrific, smoky “Saddle of Borders Lamb,” and my wife’s “really, really good” truffle gnocchi with artichokes. All the dishes were very prettily presented as well, which was a bit of a surprise in the rustic atmosphere. We had an enjoyable and delicious dinner, and we would return.

Edinburgh – “The Jolly Judge”: (Lunch) A really fun, old, “under the stairs,” low, beamed ceilings and all that traditional pub near the Castle, just off the Royal Mile, with a great cider assortment (cask and bottle), lots of “real ale,” well-made cocktails, good, casual food, and very friendly and informative service.

Edinburgh – “Ondine”: (Dinner) A very modern and pretty restaurant in Old Town. A bit of attitude was noted at first, but it son turned into a wonderful evening. Very good breads to enjoy while looking at the clever and well-organized wine list. Beautiful glassware signaled wine is taken seriously here, but our server was puzzled when we asked if they had a stopper for our bottle of Cremant, which I guess they didn’t know we planned to enjoy even after our first glasses were finished. Oh well, a minor negative point. Seafood is the star here, and the selection is fantastic and the freshness and skilled sourcing are on open display. To start our meal, the oysters were very good (although, at this later stage of our Scotland visit, we had enjoyed better). The “Wild Smoked Salmon” however, was amazing, absolutely first rate, and I could have eaten that all night (but that would have ben wrong). And the Skye Langoustines, by now one of my wife’s favorite shellfish, also were fantastic. Clearly, they know how to source and prepare very high quality seafood dishes. Nevertheless, while my wife stayed true, once again I veered landward as I watched with growing excitement three plates of beautiful meat pass by on the way to a nearby table, where three well-dressed, local gentlemen were enjoying the evening. After a few minutes of listening to their praise of their steaks, I could not stop myself from turning and asking just how good they were. One of the three, to the laughter of his friends, said, “Come here and have a taste.” I happily obeyed, and he cut for me a healthy slice of beautiful rare steak, which I placed on my bread plate while he said, “In no other country would a man offer another man a piece of meat off his plate.” I was very impressed by the meat, as well as by his generous act of brotherhood, and I proceeded to order and enjoy thoroughly the perfectly prepared and truly delicious “Scotch Rib on The Bone”: Truly, this was an epic steak, despite the seafood temple location. The vegetable sides and desserts also were great. We bought our nearby tablemates their after dinner drinks, and they kindly bought whisky for us. All in all, a very enjoyable and memorable dinner, and we would certainly return.

Edinburgh – “Wildfire”: (Lunch) A crowded-with-tourists “Scottish Steak & Seafood Bistro,” with a fine selection of ale, lager and cider, and very well-prepared, delicious food.

Leith (Edinburgh) – “The Kitchin”: (Dinner) A highly anticipated dinner based on what I had read. Unfortunately, we found it puzzling and disappointing. Once seated, among the first things we noticed, despite the very attractive, sleek yet rustic, grey-toned, stone-walled décor, were the surprising and, to us, cheap looking plastic placemats that slipped and slid around the table. Next, to our slight dismay, we found the cocktails, despite their intriguing descriptions, to be overly sweet and not particularly well-balanced. At least the breads were terrific, so we remained hopeful. Our server arrived with “a really nice appetizer for you” -- we smiled and then tasted the carrot soup, with apparently uncooked and chewy peas, bok choy, and corn, and slightly Thai-like sour flavors, and it was, in a word, meh. As the meal progressed, we were baffled by the inconsistency. While a few dishes were simply outstanding, such as the scallops baked in a shell and puff pastry -- a fantastic course -- others somehow were either over-seasoned in what we felt was a disservice to the beauty of the raw materials or over-cooked. For example, wonderfully fresh razor clams were perfectly cooked, but overpowered by a cream and butter sauce which would have been fantastic on pasta; “Pig’s Head & Langoustines” was a delicious but a bit too salty dish, and its accompanying “crispy pig’s ear salad” was more oily than crispy and just not particularly tasty; the langoustines, thankfully, were perfect. The plancha-cooked lobster was not at all like the lobster a la plancha we have enjoyed in Spain, but instead was sadly and surprisingly dry and chewy rather than moist and delicious. The lamb -- “new season” shanks plus a “herb-crusted rack” -- was presented beautifully and perfectly cooked, but the rack tasted as if it might have been brushed with wasabi or a too powerful-for-the-dish mustard. The fantastic Scottish lamb was just overpowered by the seasoning. The desserts, happily, were wonderful, beautiful and delicious. As with the food, we found the service uneven; for example, why would a Michelin-starred restaurant require diners to ask for a wine list when they have obviously empty glasses on a table cleared between courses? And this, more than once. Also, we felt there was a bit of an arrogant attitude, unlike what we experienced everywhere else we dined in Scotland. In summary, this was a disappointing evening. We are by no means inexperienced diners, and have traveled and enjoyed meals worldwide, and we walked away from The Kitchin wondering what Michelin saw that we missed.

Edinburgh – “The Devil’s Advocate”: (Lunch) A modern approach to pub dining, with less of an “old and rustic and traditional” atmosphere than I would have preferred for lunch in the Old Town, and which I felt belied the colorful name. (I realize this is entirely a matter of personal preference, for which the establishment has no responsibility.) The service was efficient, if not overly warm, and the food and the selection of adult beverages were quite good indeed.

Leith (Edinburgh) – “Restaurant Martin Wishart”: (Dinner) An amazing evening where our faith in Michelin was restored. Elegant and at the same time welcoming and friendly service. I enjoyed the “Tasting Menu,” my wife the “Fish Tasting Menu.” We each experienced an astounding procession of dishes, from a handful of amuse bouche, through the menu, to the cheese course, and on to the desserts, where one after another after another was as perfectly prepared, as delicious, as seamlessly following the preceding one, as it was beautifully presented (and, as an added joy, lots of truffle was involved!): Scallops in hazelnut, soy, and truffle sauce (this made my eyes roll heavenward); veal tartare with apple; asparagus with eggs and truffle; mackerel and oyster in almond cream; langoustine with chicken liver parfait (just, wow) ; langoustine with kohlrabi, passion fruit, and vanilla; scallops with smoked eel; tiny ravioli with snails and mussels; a swiss chard emmental soufflé; brown shrimp in buttermilk and horseradish (!); turbot a la plancha with morels and a truffle cream; squab with spring vegetables and dates; and a series of desserts that would be at home in a starred restaurant in Paris. All was perfectly cooked, with obvious reverence for the raw materials, with the seafood dishes handled as well as any in Ginza. The cheese course was wonderful as well. Did I mention the breads? Each course seemed to have its own accompanying wonderful bread, with which I wiped clean every plate to the smiles of our servers. In essence, an absolutely terrific meal, one of the finest we ever have enjoyed, that made me wish we had another night in Edinburgh simply so we could dine here again. We will definitely return.

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