High­land ho­tel An al­most per­fect fu­sion of 21st-cen­tury stylings and tra­di­tional virtues

The Herald Magazine - - EATING OUT - AULTBEA HO­TEL AULTBEA

WE’LL never ac­tu­ally set foot in the restau­rant tonight. By the time we’re told there’s a ta­ble free we’ve al­ready ad­justed to the strangely se­duc­tive elec­tric lights in the bar, stretched out on the leather couch and are soak­ing up the heat from that throb­bing wood fire.

The drinkers are a-drink­ing – tan­ning a bot­tle of house white, in fact – and the driver (that will be me) is aim­lessly a-crack­ing and a-eat­ing squat lob­ster tails. There’s a long, whip­petty dog over there stretched out like he owns the bloody place. Which it turns out he does.

As for the light­ing, some­body some­where saw those filament light­bulbs that are all the rage in Glas­gow and brought a case of them back to com­plete the bou­tique trans­for­ma­tion of a bar that must once have had all the panache of a school hut. They hang charm­ingly above us right now glow­ing at­mo­spher­i­cally though, of course, pro­duc­ing ab­so­lutely zero use­able light.

By the il­lu­mi­na­tion of two mo­bile phones and a flick­er­ing can­dle, then, Gibbo, Rob­bie and my­self take fork­fuls of a fish pie that is crammed with chunks of meaty tusk – a long and thin white fish – and grey mul­let, topped by creamy mash and a crack­ing sauce.

A loaf of white bread baked on the premises is also be­ing used to soak up a tomato broth that a few mo­ments ago sur­rounded lan­gous­tine tails that them­selves were not so long ago sur­rounded by Loch Ewe it­self – cur­rently lap­ping calmly out­side the restau­rant win­dow some­where.

That dish, which in­cluded lan­gous­tine ravi­oli of all things, is from the restau­rantwe-don’t-set-foot-in menu as is new sea­son grouse and but­ter-poached Loch Broom lob­ster.

We don’t go any fur­ther than the lan­goustines from there, or­der­ing the rest from the in­ter­est­ing bar menu be­cause tonight, Matthew, we just feel like it.

My chums are also a tad weary hav­ing trudged through miles of up­hill peat bog to join the queues that form at the top of Mun­ros round here while those who aren’t hill­walk­ers – mean­ing me – cruised round at a peace­ful loch level look­ing at cas­tor oil trees (se­ri­ously) and watch­ing fat seals brazenly sun­ning them­selves on even fat­ter rocks. There may even have been a por­poise jump­ing from a loch, though I’m sure it was an­other de­ranged seal.

Any­way, enough of spec­tac­u­lar-in-the-sun­shine Wester Ross and more of goodon-the-palate Wester Ross crab salad with a creamy dress­ing and a tangy gaz­pa­cho jelly.

In­com­ing news, too, on lit­tle crispy aubergine cro­quettes that are ac­com­pa­nied by the ho­tel’s made-in-house cheese rolled in crunchy nigella seeds. They’re good, though need sea­son­ing. To my right Gibbo is wrestling with a slip­pery lo­cal lob­ster (served with chips for £30), the con­test briefly paus­ing while the Czech waiter takes the claws that are im­pos­si­ble to open with the stupid claw cracker thing back to the kitchen for a stiff talk­ing-to with a ham­mer.

Mean­while we chat about chips. Triple-cooked, as they in­evitably are these days. Usu­ally very badly. He­ston Blu­men­thal has a lot to an­swer for. They are, of course, not chips at all but ac­tu­ally roast potato hunks.

“Roost­ers,” the waiter had replied when asked what the pota­toes were. Some­what dis­ap­point­ing that re­ply was for those of us who had hoped, maybe even, ahem, claimed, that these clearly were ex­otic spuds, prob­a­bly rus­setts, grown in primeval peat on some de­serted High­land islet. Never

mind, they tasted sur­pris­ingly ex­cel­lent. As have most things.

OK, that tomato broth maybe lacked punch and squat lob­ster are much bet­ter freshly steamed in their own juices.

A nice lit­tle short-crust pas­try pie with bram­bles rounds off the evening be­fore we drive to the ho­tel where we are stay­ing for a night cap. Only to find the lights com­pletely off, the doors firmly locked and most alarm­ingly the bar to­tally closed. At 10.30pm. But that’s in the old High­lands.

If you know a restau­rant Ron should re­view, email ron­mackenna@fast­mail.fm

Gibbo, Rob­bie and my­self take fork­fuls of a great fish pie crammed with chunks of meaty tusk and grey mul­let, topped by creamy mash and a crack­ing sauce

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AULTBEA HO­TEL

Aultbea Ho­tel over­looks Loch Ewe, from which much of the seafood on the first-class menu is caught

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