Eating (and Drinking) in the Highlands (Scotland, Summer 2017)

As you may have noticed, if you’re a regular reader of the blog, we recently made a short trip to Scotland. I’ve made a few reports on some of the distilleries we stopped in at (Talisker, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Tomatin and Oban) and here now is my first food report, which takes in some meals in Drumnadrochit and the vicinity and also drinking whisky at Fiddler’s, which proved to be an unexpectedly disappointing experience.

(I’ll skip over our Nando’s dinner and disgusting hotel breakfast in Glasgow—which featured congealed eggs, rubbery bacon and sausage that was knobby in more ways than one—and also our lunch at the Blair Castle restaurant, which was better than you might expect but not really worth a writeup—though it was certainly better than the Atholl Highlander whisky I purchased at the gift shop.) 

The stereotype of Scottish food is that it is heavy and and not very good but we did not find this to be true. Well, not the second part anyway; a lot of what we ate (and saw on menus but did not eat) was on the heavy end of the spectrum. Most of what we ate was pretty good, however, and some of the things we ate were surprisingly good—surprising both because we had no expectations and because our choices of where to eat were dictated entirely by convenience.

The Lewiston at the Loch Ness Inn, Drumnadrochit

For example, we were staying at the Loch Ness Inn in Drumnadrochit and as we arrived at the kids’ usual dinner time it was easiest to just drop our bags in the room, wash our hands and come down for dinner. This, we were to discover the next day, was an inadvertently strategic decision: in tourist season the few sit-down restaurants in Drumnadrochit fill up very quickly and reservations are necessary. And so it turned out to be with the Lewiston (which is the name of the restaurant at the Loch Ness Inn): if we had showed up just a little bit later we would have been turned away. Anyway, the food was quite good: to start, a nice seafood chowder for the missus and a cold salad of roast salmon, capers and new potatoes for for me; a larger portion of roasted salmon for her main and scallops with a very nice black pudding mash (mashed potatoes with black pudding) for me. We got the kids a penne Bolognese that was on the daily specials menu and they enjoyed it. No room for dessert. None of this is food I would go out of my way to eat but it was done well.

Breakfasts were included with our room and were served in the larger part of the dining room. We asked to be moved to the smaller part as one quadrant of the area near the bar/check-in counter is the only place in the entire hotel where the wifi is discernible. Breakfast itself, however, is of uniformly high quality. The full highland breakfast (or was it the full Scottish?) was as tasty as deadly and the other options were pretty good too (cold smoked salmon with scrambled eggs is a good thing).

Pictures of the food and restaurant below. Scroll down for a few comments on the rooms etc. and for our meals at other places in the area.

The Loch Ness Inn is a nice hotel. The major selling point for us, traveling with small kids as we were, is that they could offer us a family suite that did not cost the earth: two small rooms connected by a small hallway and a shared bathroom. No complaints about the rooms but there were two related issues which may not be a concern for most other visitors:

1) Since we couldn’t leave the kids in their room and take off we were room-bound from about 8 pm onwards. And as our room (like most of the rooms) was above the restaurant the sound of the diners’ conversation was pretty loud.

2) If the floors are thin, the walls of the inn are not. This is good insofar as we didn’t hear our neighbours; it’s bad insofar as we couldn’t get a wifi signal in our room (and, of course, cellphone coverage was non-existent). Again it wouldn’t be an issue for most people as you’d likely not be in your room for so much of the evening but we were.

As mentioned above the hotel’s wifi only works in one small corner of the ground floor (close to the router in the bar area) and you can only get a signal upstairs if you’re right above the bar. So ask for a room above the bar or do as I did and freak the occupants of those rooms out by checking your email in the corridor outside their doors.

Cobb’s at the Clansman Hotel, Loch Ness

The Clansman (consonants are important) is a hotel/inn on the shores of Loch Ness a few miles north of Drumnadrochit. The Jacobite cruises on the loch operate from the jetty across the “highway” from the hotel (I assume the operations are related) and you park at the hotel. We enjoyed our cruise on the loch and walking around the ruins of Urquhart Castle and as we were already parked decided to just eat at the restaurant at the hotel. Again, we had no expectations and were happy enough with what we got.

Cobb’s is on the first floor (second floor to you Americans) and there’s a restaurant dining room proper and a larger bar area. As the restaurant seemed to be filled with a larger group we were directed to the bar. The food had to be ordered at the bar (and we had to get our own cutlery etc.) and was brought to the table. The missus had the pie special of the day (chicken curry!) and it was pretty decent. I had a bowl of the cullen skink (a chowder featuring smoked haddock) and another starter of haggis in a whisky sauce that was surprisingly good (not because it was haggis but because it was prepared and presented with an attention I would not have expected here). The boys ate fish and chips. I drank a local beer (alas, I do not remember which). Oh yes, a lovely view of the loch from our table.

After this we drove to Cawdor Castle, which was a bit of a disappointment. Here follow the pictures of lunch. Scroll down for an evening of mild disappointments at Fiddler’s in Drumnadrochit.

Fiddler’s Highland Restaurant and Bar, Drumnadrochit

If you follow the whisky world closely you know that the whisky bar at Fiddler’s in Drumnadrochit is very famous for their selection. You may also know that their restaurant has a good reputation. Accordingly, we’d planned to stop there for dinner on our way back from Cawdor Castle, with the missus taking the boys back to the hotel after while I stayed at the bar a little longer and walked the mile back to the Loch Ness Inn. All of this went wrong.

For starters, we couldn’t get a seat at the restaurant. We hadn’t made a booking you see, and we were told the wait would be at least 45 minutes (not possible with the kids). Now, why hadn’t we made a reservation despite learning the previous evening that they’d probably be necessary? Well, because we couldn’t get a goddamned cellphone signal anywhere except when we passed through Inverness on the way to and from Cawdor Castle—and we were too busy negotiating roundabouts and narrow streets there to fiddle with phones. Now if you mention the lack of cell phone coverage online thousands of people will fall over themselves to tell you how great it is to not have cellphone coverage in Scotland. This sort of a thing is a bit rich coming from people who spend all their time on Twitter but be that as it may it does make it a bit hard to do things like call restaurants to make reservations. So, a word to the wise: if you pass through a larger population centre and get bars on your phone, pull over and make any necessary calls; don’t say, “well, we shouldn’t have a problem getting a table at 6”. None of this is of course the restaurant’s fault.

We were directed to their adjoining cafe. The only food available there is from a fish and chips truck. We considered driving back to the Loch Ness Inn for another dinner but were worried that the Lewiston might be full up by then too and then we’d have to come back again for fish and chips anyway. So we stayed. We ended up getting chicken tenders and fries for the boys and scampi and chips for ourselves. There was also a soup of the day at the bar and it was cream of broccoli; against my better judgment I got it. The soup was okay, the boys liked their chicken tenders and we agreed that we should never order scampi and chips again (as at a previous experience in London, there were tiny, entirely flavour-free shrimp sitting encased in a large mass of deep-fried batter).

On to the whisky part, which was the major part of the disappointment. I had for some reason imagined that “whisky bar” meant a bar around which you could sit or stand and discuss the bottles you were interested in with a knowledgable bartender; that there might even be other relatively experienced whisky drinkers sitting/standing next to you. It turned out that Fiddler’s is not that kind of whisky bar; what it really seems to be is a whisky list. The main whisky bar in the restaurant doesn’t have any sitting or standing room and you would presumably order a whisky and drink it at your table or take it outside. The cafe has a large bar too but there as well you don’t hang out at the bar—you get your drink and take it to a table. What this means, of course, is that if you’re a solo drinker your options are either to drink alone inside surrounded by people eating, or to drink alone outside surrounded by people who are smoking.

And at least at the cafe you can’t actually see most of the bottles you’re interested in—which you might want to do to check on details and fill levels. Also, unless you’re ordering one of the more standard expressions, anything you order from the impressive long whisky list will have to be fetched from the bar at the restaurant proper. Or at the very least the bartender from the cafe will write down what you want, go to that bar and then either come back a few minutes later with it or many minutes later to tell you he couldn’t find it. The latter happened with the first few bottles I was interested in. Eventually, to save him the hassle of continually going back and forth I gave him a ranked list of a few and said he could bring me the two highest ranked that were available. (Now you could say that I should have just gone to the bar at the restaurant proper; well, I did and was told that I should go to the bar at the cafe as they weren’t serving drinks at that bar, only at tables for people seated inside there.)

Anyway, the bartender at the cafe eventually found two whiskies on my list and brought them back already poured: a Clynelish (“Broracademy”) and a Glen Ord (Ord Over 16, bottled for the Dornoch Castle hotel). This is where the next problem happened: I am all but certain he misidentified them when he set the glasses down in front of me. I started with what I was told was the Glen Ord and was surprised by the strength (it was listed as 42.5% abv). Then when I took a sip of the one I was told was the Clynelish (listed at 58%) it was much milder (not to mention that the profiles seemed reversed). I asked if they could bring the bottles over from the other bar—I wanted to see if the abv’s on the list were correct and they turned out to be so, suggesting that the pours had indeed been confused by the bartender as he brought them over. Accordingly, when I ordered my third whisky I asked for the bottle to be brought over with the glass. Again, there was a snafu. I’d asked for the Lagavulin Jazz Fest 2013 and what showed up (again already poured) was the Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013 (which was also on the list). I drew the bartender’s attention to this and he said he thought the list was in error. Anyway, it was a good whisky and I wasn’t disappointed to drink it.

Now I’ve no idea if the ordering method I encountered was aberrational but it seems rife for problems of this kind. For one thing the bartenders are not able to answer questions about the whiskies that aren’t answered on the list ( even basic things like cask type, age etc.) and you can’t look at the bottles to see for yourself without going through a lengthy process of having bottles walked over from the restaurant. It would also be nice to be able to see the condition of bottles before you order, especially for interesting sounding older bottles/releases. At the least, I’d suggest you not order drinks more than one at a time even if the one-at-a-time route when in the cafe seems like it’s going to take longer and hit some potholes along the way (and inconvenience the staff who also have customers who are happy drinking beer and the regular whiskies at the cafe bar). Perhaps it’s very different if the proprietor, Jon Beach, is behind the bar (though I don’t know how often he is). I did see him behind the cafe, wrestling with what looked like a keg of beer (I recognized him from pictures online) but as he seemed preoccupied and not in a very good mood I decided against asking if I could introduce myself and saying hi.

Here are the pictures of the food and whisky. Scroll down for a preview of what’s coming next.

After this somewhat deflating experience—again, largely because I was expecting something other than the reality, and it should be stressed I came up with this expectation myself, not having seen anything different reported—I walked back to the Loch Ness Inn (in what had become a wonderfully sunny evening). The next day we drove to Skye, where the food was quite a lot better, and where I drank mostly local beers.

Next up: part 2 of my time at Laphroaig with details on the Distillers Wares tour/experience. And next week I’ll have my first report on the excellent seafood we ate in Skye.

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