Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Speed bonny ford, like a hire car in the wind, o'er the sea to Skye ....

A few months ago we were dining with some chums and it was unanimously agreed that we should get a small group of us together and spend a couple of days on the Isle of Skye, (for the benefit of the geographically challenged, (we do have some American readers) that's a big island on the West of Scotland. 

We thought we might do a little cycling, definitely some fine dining, a little strolling on the strand, a few days of much needed chilling out. Inevitably the real world intervened and the list of enthusiasts in the small group dwindled to the extent that it gradually turned into a two night trip for just the missus and I.


We booked into the world renowned restaurant, the Three Chimneys, situated about a century north of anywhere and workplace of a storming chef, winner of three rosettes, a Michelin star, The Great British Menu and many more accolades, Michael Smith. His philosophy at the Three Chimneys is all about very fine dining using local fish, meat and veg and since it's bloody miles from anywhere I suspect that makes both financial sense and meets the current demand for proof of provenance, sustainability and responsible farming, fishing and foraging.

We flew to Inverness, for the first time since our wedding, rented a shiny new Ford Something and set off on the three-and-a-half-hour drive across the country to the magical West. I have to say that I'd forgotten it can sometimes be fun to drive a car but finding myself on roads delightfully free of the many variations of moron who clutter the highways of Surrey, on decent tarmac, across stunning and sparsely populated countryside I arrived at our accommodation with an unusually broad grin on my ugly mug.

The restaurant has half a dozen rooms in an adjacent building, open for a year or so and delightfully and thoughtfully appointed. It's definitely a well-done operation and the rooms bit deserves the five star label.
The staff were welcoming, surprisingly multinational, (where are the local kids?) thoughtful, professional and seemed to really enjoy their work, nice folk doing good stuff.

We had time to unpack, shower and enjoy a G&T before dinner, we were only there for two nights, the first in the restaurant, the second would be at the'Kitchen Table'. 

The restaurant, bearing in mind its remoteness, was packed, we enjoyed a delightful three courses with a nice bottle of pink from an intimidating wine list then returned to the lounge in 'the House over by' (they're confused by grammar, the Scots). 

Thanks to the ministrations  of the hospitable Scot (that's both his name, and his nationality) I was, after 59 years on this planet finally introduced to a whisky that I actually enjoyed drinking, a delight enhanced on the following eve when I was instructed in the use of a pipette of water to free the aromatics.

Up the next morn to an excellent breakfast, cooked perfectly, served with warmth, enthusiasm, a great view of rain,wind, rain and more rain. I'll not mention the weather again because it remained pretty much liquid and grey through the visit. Strangely though, I think that works for this ragged, rugged, rural land.

We did some desultory sightseeing, empty roads, straggly villages, too many art galleries and craft shops selling pretty much every possible view of an otter.

The harbour in Portree was pretty and our visit there was (for me at least) much enhanced by a chance encounter with Alan, an eccentric and dysfunctional visitor from England with a mild personality disorder and extremely poor decision-making skills when it comes to selecting an opponent for a grumpiest old man contest. 

We returned early to the hotel and enjoyed the rainswept views through the rainswept windows of the rainswept loch. We read our books, took tea and relaxed. Relaxing is not one of my strong suits but if you feel the need to relax, this is absolutely the right place to do it.

So, supper time. Off to the kitchen table, a six seater high table, massive wooden pieces of furniture in a well lit annexe to the restaurant kitchen. We, and two more couples of evidently keen foodie types were seated and her ladyship was delighted to see that the "most attractive chef" her words, not mine, (and she's going to have to explain that to Tom Kerridge next time she sees him) was on station. 

I've been in a few high quality restaurant kitchens now, and the thing that impressed, as here, was the sense of ordered calm, no shouting, no panic, no drama, lots of activity, many smiles, much communication, a comfortable interaction between all the kitchen staff, extended to and including the waiters. 
Gordon Ramsey is a great chef but the prolific TV coverage of his angry, sweary, shouty style has done the profession few favours.

We were invited to stroll around and chat with the cooks, really tough to do, it seems a little like wandering into an operating theatre and asking the surgeon "what does that bit do?" However once we'd individually plucked up, (or had a glass or two of) courage we found the brigade focussed, friendly and informative, a really relaxed team, and they seemed quite inured to the process of having these idiots galumphing around getting in the way and asking silly questions. A tribute to the team and I'm assuming it's partly a side effect of this happening every night. 

We all had the "Taste of Skye" menu, eight courses and for most of us 'the wine flight', carefully chosen wines to compliment each course.

I can't fault the food, I am not a fan of shellfish and we'd flagged that in advance but when he mentioned it I asked the chef not to substitute anything, he probably had already decided I was too high maintenance but I'm trying to expand my piscatorial horizons and although the first four courses were crab,scallop,prawn and a variation of Cullin Skink I enjoyed each dish in its own right. I'd not have selected them from a menu but I devoured them enthusiastically  along with the lamb, the venison, the cheese and the marmalade cake soufflĂ© which was demonstrated for us, then cooked and delivered with Drambuie and panache.

We were invited to join Michael in the kitchen as the final few dishes were being dispatched to the front of house and thanks to my excellent volunteering skills I found myself plating up the venison dish for the last two diners. I felt that I did OK and the plate went out with no last minute fixing but the young guy slicing the meat was not letting me anywhere near his knife despite his boss suggesting that I'd be fine. I think after my eight glasses of carefully chosen "finest wines known to humanity" his judgement was probably spot-on.

The star turn, Michael Smith was an excellent host, really intense, focussed, affable but definitely in his space, and definitely in charge. Sadly he finishes at the Three Chimneys at the end of the month. A shame for the restaurant but they've an excellent replacement in the shape of Scott Davies (who has got Welshness going for him). Michael has has been there ten years and it is a beautiful and otherworldly place but it's a bloody long way from anywhere and maybe he'll turn up somewhere more accessible. 
Definitely a highly skilled cook, great chef and 'twas an education to watch him running a kitchen.

He did inscribe my souvenir menu with "probably the best sous I've ever worked with" but I suspect that statement may contain large elements of tongue in cheek.

If you've the inclination, the time, the enthusiasm for good food and fine folk, if your relationship with your credit card company can take the strain, I'd recommend the Three Chimneys. Go on, relax...




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