A meandering journey through the Scottish Highlands, in a white MG SUV, was plodding. What a ridiculously slow and straining motorcar. At one point it broke down at a remote petrol station, (perhaps I’d failed to remember how to turn it on), rain drawing in, and I had to ask a passing electrician for help. I’m not sure what went wrong, but I had to buy a second packet of crisps to calm down. Why is modern technology so stifling?
A horse would have been preferable.
Wheels aside – I have moaned about them before, after all – and from Inverness to Ullapool, to the Dipping Lugger, home to David Smith’s “eggs Hebridean”, one of my favourite breakfasts. Later, past Loch Ness, and a hotel I’d rather forget because there was far too much jelly, edging in the southern cradle of the Cairngorms, strikingly beautiful in its sculpted splendour. It was the second half of a brilliant time.
Here we arrive at Killiecrankie House, a restaurant with rooms recently named the best in Scotland. My visit preceded the award; such recognition comes as no surprise. In fact, I believe it to be surely one of the best restaurants in the UK: it is breathtaking in every way, from the welcome to the rooms, from the pre-dinner cocktails to the theatrical tasting menu that follows.
My evening began with a cocktail called the “Glasgow Facelift”, presumably a cousin of the “Croydon Facelift”, of which I am all too aware. And then a second one before dinner, where diners are seated communally, on dark tables each facing the kitchen where chefs are busy but calm.
When I visited, snacks included a fresh and dainty pea croustade, before such marvels as lamb sweetbreads, fried and dyed to be jet black and decorated with flame-shaped red pepper crackers; the sweetest and most delicate crab tartlets tucked away beneath bright yellow flower petals and served alongside a miniature soup (parmesan, I think); a soothing, umami-laden broth, wherein a morsel of tofu, cut out in the shape of a fish, was floating; and potato terrine fried in beef dripping, straddled with the most tender beef tartare, oozing with flavour and – this is not hyperbole – one of the finest three mouthfuls of food I have ever eaten.
This is just a selection of the many dishes on an enchanting, dizzying menu, which dances with the very finest Scottish produce, whether locally foraged mushrooms or mackerel from the country’s northern seas. It is exceptional provenance, playfully worked. It would all be incredibly irritating were everything not delicious. At one point, we in the dining room were presented with a ceramic egg, within which came a savoury, fish-based custard, topped with trout’s roe. A dish of venison was matched with a 2016 red wine imported from Shandong province in China by the father of Matilda Ruffle, who owns Killiecrankie House with her husband, head chef Tom Tsappis.
Everything about Killiecrankie is considered but not overbearing. A room filled with vinyl records and whisky is a fitting way to end dinner. Only breakfast – no fry-up, rather a sort of continental spread, pleasing but a little austere – I found to be lacking. It might have changed by now.
Anyway, many will have heard of Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s prestigious venue in Wales, and Mark Birchall’s Moor Hall, another top-tier restaurant with rooms. Killiecrankie is one of these magical places, with charming rooms and quiet gardens. It is a destination. And, to note, a £65 lunchtime offer is something for those unable to spend big and happen to be passing.
Here is Tsappis’s recipe for mushrooms. Worth cooking and good on a slice or two of sourdough toast.
Wild mushroom panisse
Serves 2-4 as a snack
950g whole milk
Handful of dried mushrooms (ceps, chanterelles, porcini – whatever is in season and looking good)
1kg button mushrooms
250g sifted gram (chickpea) flour
Bring the milk to boil with dried mushrooms in. Take off heat and leave to infuse.
Add the button mushrooms to a blender and pulse until finely chopped. Fry until nutty.
Strain the milk into a large pan. Chop the rehydrated mushrooms and add to your fried mushroom mix.
Bring the mushroom-infused milk to a boil and add in the sifted gram (chickpea) flour and mushroom mixture. Whisk until thick, paste-like, and coming away from the sides.
Pour into a greaseproof lined tin and cover with clingfilm. When fully cooled, slice into pieces and fry off in a pan (or drop in a deep fryer)
Can be eaten as is or dunked in hummus. We top ours with black pepper mayo and barbecued mushrooms. Also can be diced small to make more interesting croutons for a salad.
Or simply serve on sourdough bread with butter and fresh parsley.