On Wednesday I posted a brief description of the Ardbeg distillery grounds and visitor centre, replete with far too many photographs. Today I have a brief write-up of two lunches at their Old Kiln Cafe, which were the focal points of our visits to the distillery. Don’t worry, there aren’t quite as many photographs today though I do have—in what represents either a high or low for me (depending on your point of view)—four separate pictures of the same dish. The food on Islay, with one exception, was far better than I’d expected it would be, and our lunches at the Old Kiln Cafe were, in sum, the best of our meals on the island.
As you may remember from Wednesday’s report, the Old Kiln Cafe occupies one side of the large space that also houses the distillery shop. Indeed, the restaurant and the shop share a cashier. There’s also spillover seating in the bar across the hallway—and on both occasions it was needed. We had to wait both times, the second time quite a bit longer than the first: most visitors to the distillery obviously know about the food.
On both our visits the cafe was presided over by Jackie Thomson, who manages the visitor centre as a whole, and who has been with the distillery since its revival in the late 1990s, and also leads the occasional tour. It felt a bit odd to be constantly asking such an iconic figure if our table was ready—I’d recognized her from her various appearances on the whisky web—but she was as nice and hospitable as can be imagined, despite the nonstop crush at the restaurant. Indeed, everyone at the restaurant was as nice as can be imagined. And the food, as I’ve said was very good—not just for a distillery’s restaurant but as a restaurant per se. The ingredients were of high quality, the cooking was precise and care was taken with the presentation.
On the first occasion the missus and I both got dishes from the specials board. She got the mushroom risotto and I got the crispy skinned sea bass fillets with a seafood sauce (with mussels and crayfish), mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus. The risotto was very good, the sea bass was excellent. On the second occasion she got the hearty Ardbeg fish pie (with salmon and haddock) and I got a giant bowl of Shetland mussels in a garlic and white wine sauce. Both winners again. The boys got ham sandwiches on both occasions. The desserts are pretty good too: we had a very nice sticky toffee pudding on the first outing, and the boys enjoyed some ice cream; on the second outing the fish pie did us in and we had no room for dessert.
Service, I think I’ve said, was very good—the little misstep with the asparagus on the sea bass plate aside. And the prices are pretty good too, especially relative to the quality of the food. Oh yes, they also have the Ardbeg core range and some tasting flights, as well as local beers on the menu but I didn’t partake on either occasion (the first lunch was not too long after the Lagavulin Warehouse Experience and the second not too long after the Laphroaig Distillers’ Wares tour).
I may have some mild regret about not having toured the distillery portion of Ardbeg, but having done a few other tours I wouldn’t go back and swap eating at the Old Kiln Cafe for a tour of the distillery on this trip. Are there other distilleries in Scotland that boast such good food? I know Kilchoman has a cafe too, but we didn’t eat there: is it good too? I have to say it would be a canny idea for more distilleries to give visitors multiple reasons to visit.
This was the first of my Islay food reports but it’s a bit out of order. Next week I’ll have the last of my food reports from Skye; then I’ll have a report on some excellent sea food in Oban; and then I’ll get to the rest of our Islay eating. On the distillery front I only have two brief reports to come: from Bruichladdich and Kilchoman, and I might do them both next week. On the whisky review front I’ll have another Glen Grant 1992; and also on the food front, I’ll have yet another London restaurant report.