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North Coast 500, Scottish Highlands, Orkney, Speyside & Edinburgh 2018 Trip Report

_emilie_ | Oct 11, 201809:01 PM

For anyone who might be planning a trip using the poor, languishing Scotland community here, I've got a run down of our recent trip around the NC500, Orkney, Speyside and Edinburgh. I was really impressed by the food on our last trip (Glasgow, Skye, Oban), and while this trip didn't quite live up to that, we still had some good meals. This trip also reinforced for me the value of Chowhound recommendations vs TripAdvisor, Yelp or Google. With no CH, you can make some pretty poor dining decisions based on the info out there. So thanks to the few stragglers here who still take the time to post.

Hope someone finds this useful!

NC500

Kishorn Seafood Bar

Their cullen skink was just ok, but we really enjoyed their seafood platter and salmon platter, especially the excellent buttery scallops and the hot smoked salmon, but also the mussels, langoustines, smoked mackerel. I learned that the Scots like their pickled herring on the sweet side like the Scandis, but also intensely sour. Service was very friendly and I would definitely recommend a stop here. The scallops are a must. I preferred the seafood platter here to that at Kylesku, though I think that one was more Instagrammable.

Gille Bridghe

Here the absolute star of the show was the cullen skink - we did not have its equal the entire trip. It was super smoky, fishy and salty, all things I love. I want some more right now. The rest of the food was well prepared and homey but under-seasoned, which became a running theme of the trip. I don’t know that I would recommend a drive all the way out here just for the food (except the cullen skink), but if you are driving the NC500 because you like views and driving (duh), the road out to this restaurant is both spectacular and terrifying, and I highly recommend using a lunch here as an excuse to drive it. I do not think I would want to do it at night.

Applecross Inn

For me, this very popular inn lived up to the hype. I really enjoyed my monkfish ’n’ chips (my partner thought the monkfish a bit chewy vs cod, but I didn’t mind since I was just very glad it was NOT cod - he likes cod and I do not). The chips were pretty good and this was a giant plate of food. My partner had the fish pie, which we both found just ok - not smoky enough and too focused on (you guessed it) - cod. The fish pie at Scran and Scallie was much better.

Seafood Shack, Ullapool

We stopped here in the rain and ended up eating in our rental car - it is indeed a “shack” - no seating. I was initially thrilled by the menu here as it offered some more adventurous takes on seafood, but overall it was just ok. The hot garlic crab claws were difficult to deal with in the car and just not that flavorful compared to crab we get in the US (they were also not particularly hot or garlicy). The red Thai cod curry was on its own merits pretty good, but nothing like Thai curry to me - more like a North African stew with a touch of warm spice - very flavorful and well seasoned, just not the flavors I might expect. The cod almost completely disappeared into it. It was a very filling portion served with pita over loads of Basmati rice. I’d recommend a stop here, but skip the crab even though it looks cool. Go for the crazier stuff. I regret not getting the mackerel.

Lochinver Larder

TripAdvisor and the internet in general just love this place, but I’d give it a pass. They’re known for their pies, which I really do not understand, as they are not very good at all. If you must have one, the best one we had was a haggis, neeps and tatties pie which unfortunately sat in our car for a few days before consumption and still managed to be marginally better than either of the other pies we had in the restaurant. I think we were just very hungry.

Kylesku Hotel Restaurant

We stayed here 2 nights, and ate dinner (and breakfast) here for both of them. Food and service seemed like they would be at a higher level than the preceding restaurants, and in some ways they were, others not. The first dinner, service was lovely and couldn’t be nicer. The second night, service was terrible, worst of the trip. It was 100% due to our different waitresses. I think the highlight of both nights was an English sparkling rosé (I had been really hoping to try more English sparkling wines while here and they just didn’t turn up often enough! Everyone fills their wine list with Chilean stuff and Prosecco.). The seafood platter here was good in terms of the seafood, but just bland. No sauces to speak of, just boiled seafood, which is nice enough but it needs a little something after a while. The crab was again disappointing compared to what we get at home. The lobster, oysters, and scallops were good, and the spineys (they look like slightly oversized crawfish to me?) were too, but all needed a condiment of some kind (the scallops came in a butter sauce - not as good as Kishorn’s - which we tried to repurpose for other items, but it just did not go very far). We were served a nice bowl of seafood bisque with the platter that we could not figure out - was that meant to be the missing sauce, or just a soup? If it was a soup, it was truly excellent. If it was a sauce, it was confusing and not quite right. Other plates were good enough but not amazing - a couple of tasty haggis bon bons in something not unlike duck sauce for a Chinese-vibe, a Stornoway and chorizo salad that was exactly the sum of its parts, a good venison carpaccio with a light smoke to it, an overcooked burger, and scallops with a fairly nice but very mild (not very fishy or smoky) kedgeree. Breakfasts were pretty good (the kippers and porridge especially), but not the best we had. Overall everything was decent but not great, and I think we were expecting great. Still it was probably some of the better food we had in the area.

Bydand Bistro, Thurso

I will think back on this restaurant as the epitome of problem with the food in this area of Scotland for me - really nicely prepared proteins but complete lack of seasoning. I had a lamb chop, an interesting cut I’d never seen where they went right through the backbone with a rib on either side. The meat was nice, the fat was nice, but the sauce with it was just very bland, and it was served along some very sad veg. My partner had a similar issue with his short rib - blissfully fall-apart tender, but it lacked flavor. The cullen skink, which here was super creamy but not very fishy or smoky or flavorful, was rescued by some delicious “corn” bread that they make locally around here. Not a corn bread in the American sense, but a yeasty wheat bread made with some yellow corn and some other seeds and such. Really fantastic bread. My partner also enjoyed his fish & chips. Portions were enormous and service was very kind. Just don’t expect a lot of pizzazz.

Stacks Bistro, John O' Groats

Yet another restaurant where I was embarrassed by the number of times I needed to return to the salt shaker. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I think I added at least a teaspoon of salt to my tomato soup before it tasted right, but it did come with some delicious, nutty bread, a lot like the “corn” bread at Bydand, minus the corn. The pasta with pork ragu was a miss - it just didn’t have the fat to add up to the Bolognese style I think they were going for, and my salting wasn’t helping it. However, the pork chop with polenta and crispy kale was very successful and worth the trip. This is a very casual, friendly place where it seems like the specials change frequently, so you might well get lucky here.

Mey House

Not a restaurant, but a B&B with excellent breakfasts, cooked from scratch. Definitely the best breakfasts of our trip and the hosts could not be nicer. I highly recommend a stay, even if the dining options around leave a little to be desired.

Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar

We stopped in for a quick whisky right when they opened, and all they had to eat was a pea and ham soup, which lucky for us was delicious. It was perfectly seasoned, though I missed the bread from my previous two soups. Their whisky bar is pretty impressive - if that’s you’re thing, I wouldn’t miss it if you’re in the area.

Orkney

Foveran

We stayed here three nights, and had three dinners here (and breakfasts). It was more affordable than Kylesku overall, and higher caliber of food, though the rooms were not nearly as nice. The first night was probably the best - we started with a fantastic cauliflower stilton pear soup (perfect seasoning), a crab risotto with truly excellent crab flavor (for once - though maybe not the best “risotto” technique), an absolutely delicious monkfish in a creamy seafood sauce, and a middling, somewhat dry pheasant that was saved by its interesting preparation with pickled blueberries that managed to be fruity and bright without being sweet or heavy as these things often go. Night two saw a seafood platter with a phenomenal mackerel pate and some so-so hot and cold smoked salmon and crab, some yummy fried cheese, a slightly overdone (for me) lamb, and an ok steak that had haggis AND a lattice crust on top. The third night we needed to revisit the cauliflower soup (still great), and tried a good smoked beef salad (could have used more smoke), some simple but correct scallops, a nice piece of chicken stuffed with completely forgettable pork and leek but with great crispy skin, and some delicious, cheesy scalloped potatoes. A cheese plate was also good. Breakfasts were good, with some of the best breakfast meats of the trip and generous portions of them (better quality than Kylesku, but on balance still not as good as Mey House). Overall, this was the highest level of cooking we experienced this trip in the Highlands/Islands, though it was not without its misses. The one problem? Terrible wine list!!

Speyside

Stuart Arms, Dufftown

We popped in here quickly for fortification before a walking whisky tour, and each had a burger. The burgers were just ok, definitely not destination worthy, though I enjoyed the fries and cannot complain about the salt level. If you like haggis, a ridiculously towering haggis burger was available, and well liked by my partner.

Mash Tun, Aberlour

I didn’t expect too much from this place, but it was actually very good. I was feeling like I’d overdone it a bit at lunch with that burger, so just got a hot smoked salmon niçoise salad - it was excellent! Lovely moist salmon and high quality salad ingredients, in a portion so large I did not finish (and I am not a salad person). We also enjoyed some fried whitebait. My partner had a fried pork steak with gravy and liked that less (I think it suffered a bit from that blandness we experienced earlier in the trip). I would absolutely return, but be careful how you order, and also make a reservation, lest ye be turned away in a Monday off season.

Dowans 57, Aberlour

I had high hopes for this, but it was somewhat disappointing food and a terrible experience (though not entirely their fault). Dinner started with some decent langoustines in a very nice lemon peppercorn sauce, and a haggis, red onion and cheddar pizza (my partner will order haggis literally every time he sees it, so…) that came across more like a CPK bbq pizza. A venison steak was nicely tender but its accompaniments on the plate were very meh. A dish of mackerel was good, very fatty and rather intense, but the oat-crusted potatoes with it were terrible. I would probably have nicer things to say about the food if it had not been about 90 degrees in the room (not an exaggeration), and had we not been subjected to loud shop-talk from a large drunk party of liquor industry marketing execs who dominated the small room (I work tangentially in marketing and the last thing I want to hear on vacation is MBA blather at top volume). I just wanted to escape and take a shower.

Copper Dog, Craigellachie

Lunch here started well, but I think we ordered poorly, and wish I had a do-over. The room is very cute and service was nice. We started well with some tasty mussels in a creamy sauce, and a pancetta wrapped haggis (sounds like overkill, but the pancetta really helped give the haggis an umami boost). Then I had a crab mac and cheese that was super heavy carb overload with no discernible crab. My partner’s herb crusted cod with mushroom linguine was definitely better, but the pasta had a 70s turkey tetrazzini vibe. Despite not liking our mains, I would recommend a stop here. Order meats and give the carbs a pass.

S. A. Mackie Butchers, Aberlour

Not a restaurant but a butcher shop, this place served by FAR the best pie we had in Scotland. We had a few pies from them in fact - a couple of small hot water crust pastry pies (mince pie and steak pie) and a large steak pie with puff pastry crust - the meat here was delicious, tender, perfectly seasoned, with a hint of ale and no bland veg getting in the way, and the pastry was perfect, crispy and flaky. They also make a very, very good sausage roll. This was probably the best food in Speyside, and we ate it cold or reheated in our AirBnB kitchen.

Spey Larder, Aberlour

Also not a restaurant, but a cute little specialty shop with local grocery provisions, like the mackerel pate that I enjoyed so much I plowed through it in about 5 minutes flat. Combine a stop here with S. A. Mackie and you have an excellent meal.

Edinburgh

The Table

If you have looked into Edinburgh restaurants in the past year or so you will have come across The Table. It’s a tasting menu, counter-dining type of deal, with a fairly inventive, vaguely-Scottish-but-actually-more-Italian(?) thing going on, and VERY well liked on all the review sites. Indeed, almost everything was very good, but if I had to choose, I would pick Timberyard over this every time. I didn’t feel like anything here was all that new or inventive or amazing to my palate. It was just very, very well made and pleasant. We had some of the best rabbit I’ve ever had, a truly fantastic but very simple white truffle risotto (that I enjoyed more than any truffle dish I’ve had in Italy or Croatia or frankly anywhere), a pretty terrible dish that came across as pb&j cod to me, and some excellent roe deer, among other things. Wines were thoughtful, but often not my style - however, I loved the somm. Service was very casual and friendly, which is one of the things that I think makes this place compelling to diners - it’s comfortable and inviting, not challenging or designed to make you feel out of place like some fine dining restaurants. The failing here is that, coming from a slightly more cosmopolitan perspective, this felt a little dated. That’s not necessarily a reason not to go - the food is solid.

Timberyard

An excellent counterpoint to The Table, Timberyard is a lot less warm and fuzzy. It’s decorated in that Scandi hygge style, and food and wine lean that way as well. Reviews of this place come across mixed - there is a lot of love for the food, but also a lot of complaints about the service, the portion sizes, the timing, the value, etc. I decided to book it despite some of the iffy reviews because (1) you guys here on CH recommended it, and (2) I had read really good things about the wine program, and wanted to see what the Scottish perspective on natural wine is. While I loved the somm at The Table, I kinda hated the one at Timberyard - or at least thought he kinda hated me. Nevertheless, he poured a lot more interesting wines. The food was also awesome. Whereas The Table starts you off with three little amuses that make use of modernist/molecular techniques, Timberyard gives you bread. Some really nice bread with cultured butter and smoked, whipped clotted cream. And then some fried seaweed with an oyster emulsion. This all felt far more fresh to me. Then we had an outstanding veal tartare that had a texture almost like sushi, a barely charred, mostly raw mackerel, a warm, just-cooked scallop with fennel, some excellent partridge, some of the best venison I’ve had - I think they smoked it partially - with some overbearing beets and a very rich sauce that I skipped, and a delightful deconstructed bramble dessert that came together tasting like a piece of pie (and reminded me a lot of Contra in NY).

Escargot Bleu

This was a nice stop for lunch that happened to be in the right area of town for us. I had a good duck liver and pear salad that was just mildly sweet but very rich, and an excellent, simple mackerel dish (yes, if it’s not obvious, I like mackerel) with mashed potatoes in a very mild mustard sauce. My partner had couscous and a veal skewer with a nice warm spice to it, and a mille feuille that was pretty nice too. This was a great value, and I would recommend it, though the wine was disappointing.

Field

Field was easily our second favorite restaurant here in Edinburgh, despite having only gone for lunch. We would gladly return for dinner. Their white onion and beer soup was great, as was their mackerel (actually not my choice this time!) in a zingy romesco sauce. My partner loved his merguez sausage with Israeli couscous more than I did - it was fine enough. But the showstopper was a smoked tomato and clam tagliatelle with fresh pasta and the dreamiest sauce - every flavor was present and accounted for, and it all came together in the best way. My only regret is not ordering another portion of that pasta. Service was very friendly and they had a wine list that started to tiptoe into the interesting. I’d highly recommend a stop here. It’s tiny - reserve, even at lunch.

Aizle

This was the evening that Edinburgh dining started to go a little off the rails for us. I had high hopes for this place, but I think I would have done better reserving a dinner at Field and leaving this off the list. It was yet another tasting menu, but just not executed at the level of The Table or Timberyard, and it left me feeling kind of icky. Dinner started well with a pretty nice ajo blanco and a cube of fried tete de cochon, followed by flavorless mackerel wrapped in kohlrabi and only tasting of kohlrabi (hard to achieve with a fish like mackerel). Then to their credit they served one of my favorite dishes of the whole trip - unctuous mushroom, ricotta, cured egg yolk, and (I think) truffle under a sheet of handmade pasta, somewhat like a giant raviolo with no base - this was excellent. The following dish of trout with potato and trout roe was also nice, but a bit salty even for me. Then the meal took a turn towards the sickeningly rich and heavy with a veal in cherry sauce with parsnips, followed by an enormous chocolate bomb - neither of which I could finish. Service was mixed - some of the servers were very friendly and pleasant, but one was strange and off-putting. At one point she serves us some homemade sourdough for which they grew their own starter, which they seem very proud of and have named Roger. She even presents us with a card to this effect, so that we may not only hear the beloved name of Roger but also read it in print. And she tells us that card is for us to keep. Oh joy. If you try to return the card to the basket containing the bread made by dear Roger as we did, and this one server catches you, she will remove the card from the basket, place it in front of you meaningfully, and then take the basket away. (!!!)

Scran & Scallie

I cannot say for certain where I got food poisoning, but I got it bad the night before our Scran & Scallie reservation, so I am not sure I will give this a fair assessment, but I was very disappointed here. We each had one of the pies, me the steak, him the fish, and while that steak pie looks great on Instagram, it was just not very good. The crust was bland. The steak was… ok. Nowhere near as good as the butcher’s in Aberlour. The fish pie was better for sure, and better than the one we had at Applecross Inn, but too rich for me on this day. The game terrine was devoid of personality. Only the ox tongue, bone marrow, mushroom, fried egg toast was remarkable - it was hard to eat, but good, and mostly about the bone marrow (the ox tongue could have been any meat, it was fried to a crisp in tiny cubes). Maybe we ordered badly. I will also recommend that if you go here DO NOT GO AT BRUNCH. It is overrun with parents with giant strollers and their screaming children, just like Park Slope. We did not like the vibe. Go for dinner. Or skip it.

The Dogs

I felt pretty wretched for our Dogs reservation as well, and suffered through trying to eat the lightest and blandest thing on the menu (a chicken salad - I failed), but I did really enjoy their mackerel pate. My partner also enjoyed his black pudding burger (I had a bite and this was actually very good), but the whitebait here was just ok (it was better at Mash Tun). I know I did not really give this place a fair shot, since I was eating for my sick tummy, but I will say we liked the service and the environment a lot. I can’t give it a wholehearted recommendation, but if we were to go back to Edinburgh, we would go back and try this again. I would not go back to Scran & Scallie again. Just as an aside, we do a lot of traveling in Italy, and my partner drinks a fair amount of Fernet Branca both there and when we are at home. We have even been to the Fernet Branca factory in Milan. It can be a nice little after dinner tipple, but I had never used it medicinally previously. I had a couple glasses here after dinner and felt 100% better, no lie. Next time, I get food poisoning, I’m dumping the pepto and having a fernet.

Miscellaneous

Whisky

Whisky-wise, while in Speyside we visited Aberlour (obviously), Macallan (can’t say I like the whisky, but seeing the new space is worthwhile, and the walk back to Aberlour is nice), Speyside Cooperage, and did a great walking tour of Dufftown with Speyside Tours. On Orkney, we visited Scapa and Highland Park, and on the NC500 we went to Old Pulteney. If anyone wants any more detail on these, I’m happy to provide it.

Aldi

We'd never been to an Aldi, and we went hoping to find their orange wine and some of their award winning cheap whiskies, but only hit one of the 3 (one of the whiskies). I was moderately impressed with their very affordable Champagne as a substitute for the wine. I've found that here in Scotland the gen pop beverage palate must just be more in line with my own (or just not American), because most of the budget Prosecco and other sparkling options here are much drier, thank god. You can safely purchase most of the bubbles in this country without worry of a sugar headache, even if they may not be otherwise notable. (Wine overall on this trip was pretty bleak, with the exception of Timberyard, which explains all the Prosecco and purchases at Aldi.) I also enjoyed Aldi’s very generously portioned £1 chicken liver pate, and their Scottish butteries (which I am sure are probably a lot better elsewhere, but I’d never had one).

Kishorn Seafood Bar,
Gille Brighde Restaurant,
Seafood Shack,
Lochinver Larder,
Bydand,
Stacks Coffee House and Bistro,
Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar & Bistro,
The Foveran,
The Stuart Arms Bar & Restaurant,
The Mash Tun,
Copper DOG,
The Table,
TIMBERYARD,
L'Escargot Bleu Restaurant,
Field,
Aizle,
The Scran and Scallie
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