In the northwest highlands is the most northerly Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK. The Albannach, which means Scottish in Gaelic, is set on a steep hillside in a 200 year old white building overlooking the pretty little fishing village of Lochinver. The access road is tiny and not trivial to find, so follow the signs available carefully or you can easily end up in someone's driveway. There is a lounge area in a small conservatory, with the rather cosy, slightly gothic and dimly lit dining room next to it having a couple of windows looking out over the town. There are five bedrooms in the hotel. A dozen guests were seated this evening for dinner.
The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2009, which it has retained ever since. Lesley Crosfield and Colin Craig have been the owners since 1980, with self-taught Lesley the head chef and Colin acting as the pastry chef as well as looking after the wines. The nine-acre croft surrounding the property is used to grow herbs and vegetables, and they even have their own beehive. There is a fixed five-course menu at £70 that varies daily. It is important to understand that each course is served at the same time for everyone, although there are separate tables. Hence it is important as a guest to turn up in good time.
The wine list had around 200 labels, starting at just £19 with an unusually wide range below £30. If you are used to London then such prices seem from a long gone era. Example labels were Yealands Riesling 2012 at £24 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £13, Meerlust Rubicon at £43 compared to its retail price of £24, and the excellent Vina Bosconia Gran Reserva 1991 (misspelt on the printed list) at a very fair £95 for a bottle that will set you back £65 in the shop. There were hardly any wines costing three figures, one example being Krug NV champagne at £200 for a bottle with a current market price of £134.
Nibbles are served in the conservatory, and tonight comprised a biscuit base with quail egg and caviar, blini with either smoked salmon or Iberico ham, and a prawn still in its shell. The blini was rather dry and the bread base too hard, but the shellfish was good and the quail egg fine (13/20). The wait in the conservatory was excessive, especially given that there was no menu choice to consider, just the wine order. We arrived well before 7 p.m., ordered a drink and the wine, and then waited, and waited some more. Nibbles passed the time, but there was no attempt to ask whether guests wanted a second drink, and it was 8:15 p.m. before we were seated in the dining room, by which time the atmosphere amongst the diners (or at least two of them) was becoming rather fraught. Oddly, once we actually sat down then the dishes arrived at a perfectly acceptable pace (we finished the meal before 11 p.m. despite the initial delay), but the long wait at the start was excessive and never explained.
Bread was made in the kitchen, a choice of sourdough or red onion slices. Both had good flavour but were also too doughy. However I am always sympathetic when a kitchen makes the effort to make its own bread, so a kindly 14/20 for these. Roast lobster came with leaves from the garden. The shellfish was tender, though any dressing that the leaves had was subtle to the point of invisibility (14/20).
A scallop had good inherent sweetness and was lightly cooked, with a cauliflower puree that was too peppery. The scallop was served with its coral, which seemed a rather rustic choice, but the shellfish itself was certainly tender (14/20). Duck was served both as breast and with its liver, along with cabbage with caraway seeds and a sauce of the cooking juices. The duck was cooked pink, the liver fine, the cabbage properly cooked though not quite hot by the time it arrived (14/20).
Crab cake was next, a simple dish that came with avocado puree. The crab had excellent flavour and the avocado was ripe, enhanced by a couple of drops of Tabasco. Although there were a couple of pieces of shell still lurking in the crab this was an excellent crab cake, and the combination with the spicy avocado was spot on (easily 15/20).
Turbot was from a rather small 2ish kg fish (with turbot, the flavour is generally better the larger the specimen). It was correctly cooked, though its flavour was indeed rather ordinary, especially when compared to the fillet from the 8kg specimen that we had tasted days earlier at Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond. It was served with fennel, sea beet leaf and violet potato that was under-seasoned. Finally, there was flavour-free asparagus, and this being August it was clearly not from Scotland - it was in fact Peruvian. Given the emphasis on the restaurant website about using local ingredients, why on earth serve something obviously out of season, and something very ordinary at that? Overall this was barely 13/20 level, and was the weakest dish of the meal.
There was then a strangely long gap before the cheese course arrived, half an hour later. Given that there were just two cheeses on offer, served with grapes and oatcakes, this seemed an excessive gap. A French sheep cheese was in good condition, along with a pleasant Scottish hard cheese.
For dessert, pear tart was excellent, with delicate pastry and a filling with a good level of acidity, served with capably made pear sorbet on a delicate biscuit tuile (15/20). Coffee was pleasant, served with petit fours made from scratch in the kitchen, including a nice hazelnut flavoured chocolate, a pleasant tartlet with redcurrants and crème patissiere, and a good vanilla macaron.
The bill came to £119 each, with some good wine. If you shared a modest bottle then a typical cost per head would be around £100. Service was, not to put too fine a point on it, laughably amateurish. Apart from abandoning the guests in the conservatory for what seemed an age, when I placed my wine order it was described as "ah, number 15", as if ordering from a Chinese takeaway menu. Worse, it turned out that this particular wine was unavailable, and a much more recent year was offered instead (yet the latter was a much cheaper wine than the one listed), and then finally an alternative appeared at the table that was red rather than white. At least the wine and water was left within easy reach to allow us to top the drinks up ourselves. There was a uniform menu for all and two waiters had to deal with just twelve guests, so it was not as if they were stretched. This was an object lesson in how not to handle the front of house. I have no issue with the service style being relaxed, but this was not good by the standards of a basic cafe, let alone those of a Michelin starred restaurant. Fortunately the level of food was generally high, the crab cake and pear tart in particular very good indeed.
Overall, once the meal actually got going I quite liked Albannach. The food was simple but that is no bad thing, there were a couple of excellent dishes and the errors that occurred were relatively minor. The chefs popped out at the end and seemed genuinely nice and modest people. However I think that they really need to fix the service in order to bring it closer into line with the level of the food.