A perfect meal, almost
NINETY minutes from Glasgow, the man says not long after I arrive, and he’s right. It’s really not far, especially in this lovely weather. Sweeping over the Rest and Be Thankful before wheeling hard left, then winding from double to a single track road that eventually spits me out across from Castle Lachlan, Loch Fyne lapping away nonchalantly.
There’s a path to the castle there, I’m told. I can see it just fine from here, thanks, I think, as I pick my way through fermented carrots, way, way better than they sound, kind of garlicky actually. And cheese puffs, crispy, melty, very righteously cheesy.
I don’t ask whether they raise those cheese curds themselves (they will), the waitress is having a hard enough time dealing with my questions about the Gardener’s World of different flowers that appear in the various dishes. Nasturtium (of course), sorrel, sea campion and tiny white watercress blooms. I eat them all, though they are, as always, more of a visual treat.
Stoner, John Williams’ novel on the elegance of ordinary life, is on an audiobook loop in the toilets. Is it a message? Maybe. There’s an elegant ordinariness about Inver. It certainly hasn’t changed much, even at all, in decor terms since the last time I was here three years ago.
Plain Jane west coast country hostelry been-a-lot-of-things-in-its-time is what it murmurs quietly and politely as I step in.
But then it’s not about the decor. And not just because of that view that dominates the windows. It’s about the eating. So I have soused herring to start, fish prepared from scratch here, of course, fillets shimmering and silver, flesh with an unusually succulent firm texture – absolutely nothing like the usual pickled herring offerings seared to damnation by powerful pickling juices. Pickled potato too, handmade crisps and a weird-sounding (but of course traditional) emulsion of beef fat and cider vinegar that turns out to be nothing at all to be scared of. Simply a punchy, pleasant dressing to enjoyably drag all the components through.
The last time I was at Inver, it had just found its way onto the London Food Critics Grand Tour of Scotland route. It was, of course, lauded. And it was good. But it was also slightly unconvincing. I remember a baffling pine needle concoction taken from trees right out back. Full marks for right-on foraging, nul points for flavour.
There’s none of that out-there edginess this time. Take this potted pork, served in a Kilner jar. A nutty, crusty, salty sheen over the top of it, smooth sweet pork underneath.
“We’ve just bought a whole pig,” I’m told later. Good, but a fabulous little side salad of sweet elderflower vinaigrette, soused onions and sprigs of fluffy fennel blows even it away with its simple goodness.
And the list of main courses is no longer slightly shocking, but is simply assured. Isle of Bute lamb, summer onions, garlic scapes; Auchinbreck Farm sausages, beans and fennel; burnt grain dumplings, fresh cheese and anchovy. I want to try them all.
For this lunch, though, I’m having Gigha halibut, mussels and coastal greens. Yes, there’s some seaweed in there. Dulce: crisp, packed with that umami Heston Blumenthal is always banging on about. Samphire too. Crisp mussels. Purple and white sea campion flowers.
The fish skin is even rolled and fried to a puffed and savoury crisp. But the fish itself? Sitting in a salty, buttery frothy sauce? Crikey. Perfect, meaty white, light and incredibly fresh. The seasoning is flawless.
Recently I’ve eaten in a good few Michelin-starred restaurants and yet this dish is better than anything I had in any of them. By far. Of course, in a meal with faultless seasoning, guess where they go uncharacteristically, infuriatingly, mad with the salt cellar?
In the dessert, of course. Wild rye dumplings, black pepper ice cream and bone marrow caramel. First two perfectly fine. But the caramel sauce? Inedible. Otherwise, though? A perfect meal.
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Inver Restaurant offers imaginative local sourcing, and bold top-drawer use of seafood and local meat