Editor's note: since August 2018 the new head chef is Graham Cheevers, formerly of Martin Wishart at Loch Lomond.
The Isle of Eriska is a luxury hotel and restaurant on a remote private island on the west coast of Scotland, a few miles from Oban, in a building dating back to the late 19th century The hotel has 26 rooms, or you can stay nearby at the Barcaldine Castle, which has a few rooms and is one of the very few original castles in Scotland in which you can stay, and is delightful. The Isle of Eriska can be reached by road across a little bridge, which rather disconcertingly is made of wooden planks that rattle alarmingly as you drive across it.
The head chef since May 2016 is Paul Leonard, who took over from Ross Stovold, who had run the kitchen for three years and gained the restaurant a Michelin star in 2014. Paul had worked at the Isle of Eriska since early 2015, and had previously worked at Andrew Fairlie for two years, as well as at The Samling and Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley.
The restaurant can seat around sixty customers at full capacity, with a garden terrace for drinks in good weather. The kitchen is committed to using local produce, with many things grown in the garden of the hotel and other vegetables from elsewhere on the little island. Practically every garnish on the plate is from within a few miles of the kitchen, and the hotel has a team of five gardeners to keep the restaurant well supplied.
The wine list was extensive and, via the Coravin system, some of the premium wines were available by the glass. The labels ranged in price from £19 to £600, with bottles from Argentina and Austria as well as France and Italy. Sample bottles were Domaine Les Aphillanthes 2015 at £28 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £18, Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2009 at £50 compared to its retail price of £21, and Echo de Lynches Bages 2010 at £90 for a wine that will set you back £45 in a shop. Grander bottles are available top, such as Sassicaia 2011 at £275 compared to its retail price of £125, and Vega Siciia Unico 2002 at £500 for a bottle with a current market price of £270.
Breadsticks with onion seeds were made from scratch and had excellent texture, served with an onion dip with deep flavour (16/20). A trio of nibbles then appeared. A gougere was made with Isle of Mull cheddar and was suitably cheesy with light choux pastry, excellent haddock turned out to be smoked in the kitchen and came on a potato cracker, and a pigs head fritter on ham fat had plenty of flavour and was nicely seasoned (16/20). The bread was made from scratch in the kitchen. White bread with buttermilk was pleasingly salty, and brown bread was made used stout infused oats, even the beer being a local one from nearby Oban (16/20).
White crab meat came with herring roe, tomatoes, sourdough crumb, gazpacho, dill, nasturtium petals, baby radish and turnip leaves. The gazpacho was creamy rather than spicy, the crab good but the star element was actually the radish, which had lovely flavour and turned out to be grown in the garden of the hotel (16/20). Even better was pork cheek with pan-fried langoustines, fennel puree, tiny courgettes, fennel oil and a little of the Isle of Mull cheddar. The langoustines were sweet and lightly cooked, but the pork was gorgeous, with rich flavour and without a hint of the dryness that can easily afflict pork cheek, with the miniature courgettes excellent (17/20).
Halibut had good flavour but also featured the only technical flaw that we encountered in the meal, it being very slightly overcooked. This came with more of the excellent langoustines, barbecued leek, spring onions, parsley oil and brown butter mousse. The vegetables were good and it was a pity that the fish was not at its peak, though it was certainly still pleasant (14/20).
Better was venison with fresh curds, chanterelles picked from the island, both regular and golden beetroots and beetroot leaf, with a sauce made from the cooking juices. The meat was excellent and the beetroot was particularly good, going very well with the deer; the sauce could have been more intense to my taste, but this was an excellent dish nonetheless (16/20).
There was an impressively extensive cheese trolley, with every cheese British and a high proportion of the selection coming from Scotland. Strawberries from Perthshire had good flavour, both regular and green strawberries served with a Jersey clotted cream parfait, Italian meringue, strawberry "soup" and a garnish of sheep sorrel leaf. The fruit was good but the parfait was too rich, even when offset by the acidity of the strawberries (14/20). Better was caramel with candied hazelnuts, praline ice cream, dark chocolate curd and a chocolate brownie, the nuts combining well with the richness of the chocolate, the texture combination good (16/20). Coffee was from a come au called Caffa and was fine.
Service was good if not quite as slick as it could be in places, with drinks topping up generally good and the staff very pleasant. I was particularly impressed with a Romanian waiter who knew the details of the extensive cheese board inside out. The bill came to £143 a head with a bottle of lovely Meursault Charmes. If you ordered a modestly priced bottle of wine, which were plentiful on this list, then a typical all in price per head would be around £85.
The overall meal was balanced between a 15/20 and 16/20 in terms of score, with just a few minor slips but in general a very enjoyable experience, and with some classy elements such as the excellent pork. I really liked the degree to which the ingredients were sourced locally, many from the island itself. It is certainly a meal that felt very much in tune with the remote but lovely surroundings. The Isle of Eriska is an isolated spot but a pretty one, and if you are in this part of Scotland it is well worth the journey.