Knockendarroch Hotel & Restaurant
Higher Oakfield, Pitlochry, Perthshire PH16 5HT
01796 473473 www.knockendarroch.co.uk
Dinner Only: 3 courses £49.00
Cooking 7.5/10 | Service 5/5 | Flavour 4/5 | Value 4/5
The power of the staycation. For those who don't now it, Pitlochry is a pretty Scottish village just off the A9. It probably marks the beginning of Highland Perthshire. It developed through tourism after Queen Victoria made the Highlands fashionable, and that continues to this day. This may explain why a town of fewer than 3000 souls boasts 177 coffee houses. Now I may be mistaken: when counting I might have missed a couple. The competition is fierce - take a bow, Cafe Calluna - but when it comes to serious dining, the picture is a little different.
That's where local knowledge kicks in. On to the stage please welcome the wonderful W family, more specifically JW and LW, relatively recently resident in the parish. The best food, it seems is to be found in some of the hotels dotting around the hinterland. Unfortunately, most of these are catering primarily for residents. Places for mere mortals seem to be as rare as a smile from a doctor's receptionist. LW calls us up in great excitement to say she has the offer of a table here, the only drawback being that it's at 6. Oh well, beggars and all that.
The main reason I dislike an early reservation is that you know they're trying to turn the table. After an hour and a half you start to look at your watch and become paranoid about any staff monitoring how fast you're eating. Well, not for the first time, the good people of Knockendarroch confounded my expectations. The table was ours for the night. As befits a place which has won the Best Small Hotel in Scotland award, the emphasis is on making you feel at home. Many a place will march you to a table and stiffly ply you with an amuse-bouche, described in breathless tones.
Here you are taken into a very comfortable lounge for a quiet drink. When I say quiet, that was before we met the lovely but loud Violet. She is slightly deaf, we gather; oh, and her name isn't Violet. Apparently her manager described her manner as violent, which she misheard. Her real name is Ibolya, not a good moniker to have in a time of virus, but, coincidentally, Ibolya is the Hungarian word for Violet. (I did check this - we weren't being spun a yarn.) Anyway, the message to all hoteliers out there is that everyone should have a Violet. This lady was great fun, and set the tone for the evening. As did the food which came with the drinks. No poncy French amuse-bouche here - we were served good old Scottish canapés. (Note to self - must look up the French word for canapé.) Wonderful stuff. Tiny Cullen Skink tarts with an excellent alternative for the non cream eater, and dolls house sized chicken kebabs. A very fine start.
It's a three course menu, priced at £49. That's probably decent value as you'll see, but I got the impression that it's £49 even if you wish only two. Another oddity was having to order dessert along with courses one and two. We moved to the elegant new conservatory, added last year partly to facilitate social distancing. That, incidentally, explained the early dinner time. The table was ours for the night, but they space things out to make plenty of room in the lounge.
The hotel is an elegant piece of Victorian or Edwardian substance, once home to a wealthy lawyer. It boasts a unique piece of cultural history. These days, they talk about dining out as theatre. Well the real deal, the celebrated Pitlochry Festival Theatre, was founded in 1951 in a tent in the grounds here before moving to its current home in 1981.
The bill of fare is a sensibly compact, in a 4:4:4 formation. Something for everyone, yet each player having star quality. I did raise my eyebrows at asparagus being served in October, but JW declared himself well happy. It came with that hellish difficult thing, a crispy poached egg. You lightly cook your egg, then coat it in breadcrumbs and fry it. I've tried a few times and simply turned the air blue and the work surfaces yellow. Many country house menus will feature a terrine, but this game version was exceptional. Pipped to the post, however, by the crab cakes. These latter have been a source of disappointment to me in so many places, not least because the flavour of crab is sadly lacking. Not here, set off perfectly with a beautifully balanced salsa of mango, chilli and avocado.
Our main dishes were lamb and pork respectively. The lamb came two ways. If the chops could have been a tiny bit pinker for my taste, the principal consumers were more than satisfied. A word on the garnishes. Too often you're served a mish mash with no obvious coherence. Chef here (Nick Imrie, I believe, since 2016) knows what he's about. Spring onion mash, carrot purée and rosemary mash were ideal complements. As was the black pudding stuffing in the pork roulade. And what harm did dauphinoise potatoes and parsnip purée ever do anyone? And the second piece of expectation confounding. Most restaurants rip you off with their wine prices: country houses are among the worst offenders. Not this one. A good range under £30 the bottle and an excellent selection available by the glass.
It's all sounding just too perfect, isn't it? A terrific dinner with good friends in a warm setting overlooking glorious Perthshire scenery as the sun goes down. But here is a good reason why you shouldn't have to order dessert till you've finished your main. Will you want something substantial or light? Will you want anything at all? I generally don't. So we'd all decided on the cheese, as you can share plates or just nibble with a glass of wine. Sadly, therefore, none of the strawberry shortcake, pear and almond frangipane tart or dark chocolate ganache got its moment in the spotlight. And the cheese was merely OK, (though high marks for the accompanying fig jam.)
If all the dining world's a stage, Knockendarroch is a very fine place to be a player.