For a decade Ardeonaig Coaching Inn on Loch Tay has been one of Scotland's best fine-dining destination hotels but, yet again, it has recently changed hands
Constantly changing ownership has taken its toll at Ardeonaig
There was a stage when the food at Ardeonaig was up there with the very best Scotland has to offer. It was ten years ago and the place had been bought, expanded and renovated from top to bottom by Pete Gottgens, an ambitious, ebullient and almost manically driven chef from South Africa.
Not only was the food of Michelin-star quality, so was the service and the accommodation, especially t he eight luxurious new thatched huts in the grounds which had been constructed to look like the traditional South African native dwelling called 'rondavels'.
Despite the place being stowed out virtually every night of the year, Gottgens came a cropper in the financial crash when the bank called in the rather large loan he had amassed as a result of a £1.8m expansion plan. Since then the place has passed through the hands of Stirlingshire entrepreneur Euan Snowie and was recently bought by Ian Hitchins, who also owns the nearby Killin Hotel and Ben Lawers Hotel, which is across Loch Tay in the shadow of the eponymous Munro.
On arrival, little appears to have changed at Ardeonaig. The place still looks like the picture-perfect little tardis of a country inn, and the welcome area is still the same, while the rondavels are still there (though rebranded as 'bothies'). The first change you notice, however,
is that the ever-moving dining room has now migrated from a big, light and high-ceilinged space at the back of the building to a cosy and low-ceilinged spot at the front.
Nor is that the only change on the food front. In the most important place of all, there is a new face in the form of head chef David McCulloch, who formerly plied his trade in the kitchens at Kincraig Castle and Fonab Castle. Having eaten at the latter while McCulloch was working there, and having a definite soft spot for Ardeonaig, we looked forward to seeing whether the new chef could live up to the previous stellar standards under both the irrepressible Gottgens and t hen David Maskell, the impressive head chef who ran the kitchen under Snowie's Adamo Group alongside former General Manager and French wine expert James Payne.
The auguries looked good as we sat down at the table, with a spring dinner menu mixing classic French options with country house hotel staples. The effect was rather spoilt, however, by an angry northerner grumbling loudly about the quality of his beef while his wife tried desperately to stop him taking the kitchen to task.
Our meal started well enough with a well-constructed selection of amuse-bouches, which was followed by our two starters – chicken terrine with wasabi, broad beans and celeriac, and beef rillette with carrots, horseradish and pea purée. Sadly these were not the starters of our dreams. The terrine, enlivened by some commendably sparky wasabi, just about passed muster, but the rillette was surprisingly heavy, bland and altogether dull.
Given the beef-based stramash breaking out on the next-door table, we gave that dish a sideswerve and instead chose two alternative main courses. The first to arrive was the slow-cooked duck with a leg meat croquette, wild mushrooms and cabbage, followed within seconds by a duo of lamb with rösti, carrots, beetroot and mushrooms. Both were solid, with the croquette the undoubted highlight.
Pudding, though, was nowhere near the required standard for a hotel whose future depends on maintaining its status as a gastronomic destination for people who know their food. The dark chocolate delice with peanut butter and cherry was so heavy that it remained mostly uneaten; which is almost unprecedented. The cheeses were small but fine, yet the plate was plonked in front of us without any explanation of what we were looking at. Indeed, the service, while friendly, was not what you'd expect to find at a fine-dining restaurant – which, when you're paying £42 for three courses, is exactly where Ardeonaig is pricing itself.
‘ Could the new head chef live up to the previously stellar standards?’