There’s a nice synchronicity about Inver having been recently made AA Best Scottish Restaurant of the Year 2016, for this is a restaurant you can really only get to by road. Though the town of Strachur is not really all that remote – I grew up an hour’s drive southwards and inland, a mere skip of the skimming stone – Inver is a world apart from the style of dining the area is accustomed to. (In the town where I grew up, there are restaurants which still serve a glass of orange juice as a sophisticated continental appetiser. A reminder: it is 2016.)
Inver is a world apart from the style of dining the area is accustomed to
This has had its issues, and owners Pamela Brunton and Rob Latimer have overcome some initial local resistance to a definition of fine dining that does not include soup-n-sandwich combos for the lunchtime crowd. Their patience and their quiet certainty about what they are doing is now being justly rewarded. Diners are travelling.
Like The Sportsman in Kent, Inver has something of the feel of the private home whose owners have one day concluded that, in all humility, their cooking is good enough that other people should get to try it. Rob doubles as maître d’ and head waiter (while demand for tables has waxed and waned a little until now, so too staff pitch up on an ad hoc basis as needed).
In the evening, there’s a four course set menu, with the first course – small bites and pre-dinner drinks made with local spirits – served in a front room in front of a fire that’s dormant when I eat there, but probably scant days or degrees from being lit. Dinner itself is in a large, bright, white-walled open plan space – several rooms knocked through – with clothless wooden tables, Ercol Windsor chairs, a boxed banquette along one wall and a few unobtrusive prints on the walls. (It is so like the house my grandparents lived in when I was growing up – minus the glass gewgaws – that I start to expect, Proustianly, their fish pie for dinner). Windows around two sides of the room give views out over the gold wrack and green of the shore, the inevitable louring banks of grey-blue cloud and, just sometimes, a wet, tentative sunset silhouetting the remnants of Old Castle Lachlan.
Let’s start with dessert. Beneath a cumulus cloud of creamy mousse flavoured with blackcurrant leaf and dusted with freezedried blackcurrant powder lies a scoop of tart, bright sorbet of the fruit that may be the most summer-in-Scotland flavour imaginable. For texture and saltish throughcut, there’s a version of Christina Tosi’s famous “milk crumb” from New York’s Milk Bar, which has me foxed: am I tasting tiny chunks of shortbread? White chocolate? (Yes and yes, as it turns out – but not quite either.) This is a dish with silkiness, sweetness, sharpness, savour, crunch; it has comfort and newness, indulgence and a kind of homely parsimoniousness, as if – like the fruit fools of my youth – this were simply the most efficient way to use up a superabundance of late summer fruits (there’s even a scattering of blackcurrent flower petals around the dish too), rather than what it truly is: one of the great desserts of my life. And much as I might wish for such a dessert never to end, it is perfectly sized.
Before this: a dish of chanterelle mushrooms, slivered almonds and little clusters of fresh marjoram is made substantial by a potato broth that tastes like the roasted skins of baked spuds spiked with the merest shake of vinegar, and which I end up spooning out of the jug it’s served in. Here’s summer-turning-to-autumn on a plate. The soup is the flavour equivalent of wrapping a blanket over your shoulders as autumn starts to bite. I could eat it, as they say round our way, to a band playing.
This is a meal that takes a bit of planning – the restaurant closes over the winter months, for obvious reasons; and, as noted, it can really only be reached by car, meaning that diners (as opposed to lunchers with a designated driver) are best to arrange to stay at one of the B&Bs in nearby Strachur. There, owners are getting accustomed to visitors’ requests for a lift or a taxi to the area’s biggest new draw. Pam and Rob are planning a series of bothies on the Inver site, where guests will be able to stay, but for now, understandably, the restaurant must take priority. My only disappointment on visiting was that on a Friday night in late August, too few tables were occupied. Quietly, modestly, Pam and Rob are doing an amazing thing out here on the loch shore, and I hope more people make the small effort to find that out for themselves. C
Inver Restaurant, Strathlachlan, Strachur, Argyll & Bute PA27 8BU
+44 (0)1369 860537; inverrestaurant.co.uk