Bob's Dining Journal
From Skirlie to Caol Ila
Being of a parsimonious disposition, we spent our first week in Scotland in an Edinburgh self-catering flat, obtained a mere week before our departure from Philadelphia at a "late break" price because our previously-arranged Gayfield Street flat became unavailable due to the landlady’s incompetence. Instead, our flat in the Morningside neighborhood, with a decently outfitted kitchen, was marvelously situated around the corner from a branch of cheesemonger I.J. Mellis, and we took full advantage of the stinky offerings. I particularly enjoyed a raw milk cheddar from Mull. I also journeyed via bus to the Stockbridge neighborhood to visit George Bowers for meat (house smoked bacon) and G. Armstrong’s for fish. (It is strictly coincidental that fire destroyed Armstrongs a mere five hours after my purchase of a kipper; the fire certainly had nothing to do the fact that when I unwrapped the fish two days later I found not a kippered herring but a rather odoriferous "fresh" herring.)
One of our objectives in leasing a flat is to cope with the high price of eating out in the U.K. The old saw holds true: If you would pay $30 for a meal in the U.S., expect to pay £30 in the U.K. for a similar meal. At today’s exchange rate, that means dinner in the U.K. is nearly twice the price of what it would be in the U.S. One more reason why we ate spaghetti in the flat twice during our week in Edinburgh.
Our most enjoyable restaurant meal in Edinburgh was at Fishers Bistro in Leith. I opted for the cold seafood platter, overflowing with prawns, smoked salmon, crabmeat, herring, anchovies and many other food things to eat (including a Loch Fyne oyster), Jean Sue (hereafter referred to as She Who Must Be Obeyed, or SWMBO) enjoyed a nicely prepared piece of halibut with a fruit accented sauce. With two starters, two glasses of wine and two puddings, the tab came to £48 before gratuity. (All prices cited below are before gratuity; figure the exchange rate at $1.85 or thereabouts to the pound sterling.)
Another worthwhile stop was Plaisir du Chocolate on the Royal Mile. Forgettable pre-made sandwiches but memorable chocolate cakes. I thought the chestnut accented one was a nice change from what we see in the States.
While touring we stopped at a few pubs for less expensive meals, some passable, others best passed by. The surer bets appear to be cafes at cultural institutions. We thought highly of the sandwiches and soups at the National Portrait Gallery. Good eats also could be had at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens.
After our week in Edinburgh we took a leisurely and highly indirect route to Royal Deeside by-way-of the Fife coast, stopping for lunch at The Waterfront Café in Anstruther. For £14 we enjoyed very decent haddock and chips along with non-alcoholic beverages.
In Ballater that evening we dined at the Rowan Tree. I went for a starter (chopped salad) and the lamb cutlets, a nice portion and suitably lamb-y. She Who Must Be Obeyed did the gammon steak with egg. Certainly no great culinary event, but a decent meal for weary travelers, fairly priced (£27 with one cocktail, one wine, and two puddings).
The next day, tired from our exertions, I dined at our hotel’s restaurant while SWMBO dined on her portable chocolate supply. The restaurant at the Monaltrie Hotel offered a Thai menu, so I tried it. It was filling. Enough said.
After two nights in Ballater, it was onward to Kenmore on the Applecross peninsula. But first, lunch in Fortrose, a short detour from the direct route, but well worth it. Let me explain.
Prior to our departure from Philadelphia I visited my local pharmacist (chemist) to stock up on needed supplies, including prescription medicines. When I told Walter I needed more than a two weeks’ supply because we would be traveling in Scotland, he abruptly went into his back office and returned with a business card for a restaurant called The Anderson in Fortrose. It seems the town’s hotel was acquired a little more than a year ago by a fellow Philadelphian, indeed, a fellow who lived in our immediate neighborhood, Jim Anderson, although I did not know him. I did know of him, however, because he had published a newsletter, Beer Philadelphia, all about (can you guess?) beer in Philadelphia. So, I e-mailed Jim and made reservations for lunch on the day of our Ballater-to-Kenmore journey. (His restaurant only opens for lunch upon advance request.)
We arrived with Jim’s favorite brand of razor blade (Gem single-edge, unavailable in the U.K., supplied by Walter) and he returned the favor with a most delicious lunch. SWMBO ordered a perfectly done Highland beef sirloin. After a starter of Arbroath Smokie I selected boneless French chicken stuffed with skirlie (an oat and onion concoction and quite savory). Since I had a few more hours of driving ahead of me, much of it on single-track lanes, I limited myself to a half-pint of Celis White, while SWMBO chose another short brew. We shared an excellent and dense chocolate cake. Tab: £60.
Jim sent us off with two bottles of Grimbergen Blonde, a nicely rounded abbey ale that made a refreshing accompaniment for our dinner that evening at our B&B, Tigh a' Chracaich, in Kenmore on Loch Torridon. The innkeeper, Lorna MacIver, served us: two cold seafood plates overflowing with half a dozen langoustines (a.k.a. Dublin prawns), both cold and hot smoked salmon, crabmeat and prawns in marie rose sauce, accompanied by salad, hard cooked eggs, rolls and hot potatoes. Lorna, whose husband Derrick lands the langoustines, added labout £30 to our tariff for the meal.
Our next night on the beautiful Applecross peninsula we dined at the highly recommended Tigh an Eilean Hotel in Sheildaig on Loch Torridon. At a prix fixe of £35 for three courses we expected an exquisite meal. We were mildly disappointed. The ingredients were top flight, the food well prepared, but lacking the extra dimension needed to make a meal memorable. Certainly the surroundings were enjoyable: a pleasantly blue accented dining room looking out on the loch. And the amuse bouche duo of venison salami and herring seemed to be a good omen. My starter of mushroom almond soup hinted of Spain and also promised better things. We both ordered the filet steak, which came in huge portions, though SWMBO thought it inferior to The Anderson’s. Predictably, SWMBO ordered the profiterole with chocolate sauce (declaring it a success) while I went for the refreshing rhubarb fool. Two glasses of syrah increased our tab to £77. (My Tokaj pudding wine arrived gratis because it was not delivered with the pudding.) A good meal, but not, IMHO, worth the price. Jean Sue overhead one set of diners discuss how they had been coming to the restaurant every year, but with the new chef the portions have grown while the quality has declined. Then again, perhaps we should have ordered something other than beef, because the starters and desserts were quite nice.
The next evening, at The Potting Shed Café in the Walled Garden in Applecross, was more to our liking and budget. SWMBO skipped the starter, but I devoured my confit duck leg: duck butter! SWMBO had a hankering for venison and was highly satisfied by the chef’s casserole mounted upon a colcannon utilizing red cabbage, mustard and apples, the plate top with deep fried shreds of celeriac. My pork filet rested upon a more traditional colcannon (savoy cabbage rather than red); a blue cheese and apple sauce topped the meat. For pudding, SWMBO once again decided to try the profiterole with chocolate sauce (strictly for the advancement of science) and pronounced it perfect. Had she not been so full she would have replicated the experiment, as any true scientist would. My butterscotched banana chunks baked in a phyllo-like pastry and topped with honeyed, herbed nuts was the quintessential adult pudding. With a bottle of Tempranillo our tab came to £52. We considered it our best value meal of our Scottish holiday. (The chef at The Potting Shed made his mark at the Applecross Inn and is now out on his own.)
We finished our trip with a couple of days in Glasgow. Other than the obligatory tourist stop at the Willow Tea Rooms, where we shared our table with a convivial couple from the suburbs of Birmingham, our only meal of note was a visit to The Ubiquitous Chip, where (keeping in mind my parsimonious nature) we dined downstairs on the upstairs menu. SWMBO loved the butternut squash soup with red bell pepper; sweet vegetables are her thing. I equally enjoyed the razor clam farcis. Although we have razor clams in the States, I have never seen them on a menu, at least on the East Coast, so they were a treat. Mains were a smallish chicken breast in turnip cream sauce with veggie haggis for her, and Perthshire pork belly (very yummy) over clapshot and greens for me. I found the young, raw spring greens added a nice tactile snap to the potato and rutabaga (Swedes) mash. The potent Addlestone's cloudy cider was a perfect quaff for the pork. She skipped pudding but I went for a piece of cheddar with house-made crackers and followed that up by introducing myself to the wonders of whisky. Never having had indulged before, I dove straight in with the help of the beverage server, selecting one of the softer Islay malts: Caol Ila. I could get used to this stuff! Our tab for the evening (after I asked for a correction to the addition, in which we were erroneously charged for four starters and four mains) was £40, and our venture into the Upstairs menu provided good value. In retrospect, it appears our money would have been better spent on the downstairs menu here than at the similarly-priced hotel dining room in Sheildaig.
I’ve limited my discussion here, naturally, to the vittles we encountered during our 16 days in Scotland. What I have not done justice to is the beauty of the countryside and the friendliness of nearly everyone we met (no dour Scots crossed our paths). My only regret is that I didn’t eat more lamb!