Saturday 19th September 2020
“Are you having the tasting” the owner of the B and B asks, a glimmer of excitement in his eyes. We confirm that we are. “Ohh, you’re in for a treat,” he says, rubbing his hands together.
When John, the local (the only?) taxi-driver, picks us up later, he too asks if we’re “having the tasting”, with the same flash of joy mingled with pride in his eyes. “Take as long as you like. Really just enjoy it,” he urges us. Much like all of my holidays, this trip has been planned around where we will eat. Having travelled to this corner of Scotland with the expressed interest of eating at Inver, we are buoyed to hear such gushing sentiments from the locals.
At the restaurant we are shown straight into the bar area where our meal begins. In front of the low fire, we peruse the cocktail menu which is neither lengthy nor intimidating, reasonably priced too. I opt for the cocktail from the specials board: rosehip syrup, lime and tequila, and my partner has a negroni. In addition to our drinks, we are also given our first taste of the meal to come whilst seated in the bar. The waitress brings over a tray of four different snacks which form the first course of the tasting menu: raw vegetables and anchovy, cockles, tattie scones and grilles slice, and tomato leaf tart. Immediately what strikes me is the delicate use of flowers and herbs on each morsel, both as decorative garnish and for flavour. Take the cockles: served in their own intensely flavoured juices which appeared to have been slightly jellified, there was a strong burst of citrus too, along with the subtle floral spice of the fennel pollen that had been used to garnish each cockle individually. Perhaps it’s the signature touch of Pam, the head chef, or perhaps it’s part of the restaurants’ love letter to the Scottich countryside. Sorrel root and lemon cucumber were some of the other interesting produce to feature amongst the crudites.
Snacks finished, cocktail glasses drained, we are now seated comfortably at our table, we are able to fully appreciate our surroundings. There’s a slight change of gear between the atmosphere of the bar and the restaurant. Whereas the bar is dimly lit with up-lighters on the walls and the furnishings are dark and soft, the restaurant area has brighter spotlights, bright white walls and the wooden tables and chairs have been left unpainted. The exposed wood and the more stark lighting gives the feeling of being a little more exposed. Little touches such as mis-matched vintage glassware, old books, and tiny glass bottles on the windowsill filled with seasonal blooms help soften the edges. The mix of comfort and harshness in the decor seems to emulate the Scottish countryside and coastline that is evidently so much part of this restaurant’s bones.
The obligatory sourdough and homemade butter grace our table along with the first course: Squash broth. Rob, the sommelier and co-owner of the restaurant, informs us that the broth has been made using the earthy, caramel pan juices of roasted squash and enriched with pork fat. Now, I am likely to go weak in the knees for anything that is enriched with pork fat. Far from making the sweet broth feel greasy, the fat gives the broth body in the mouth, making it feel so rich and so savoury that a tiny cup is all you need to feel completely nourished.
Already feeling pretty content with our lot, things perk up even more when Rob pops back to the table to pour our first glass of wine from the recommended pairing. Le Campore is a white wine from Emilia-Romagna in Italy. Skin contact in its first stage of fermentation, before spending a little time in oak, this wine has all the character I would expect to find in a skin contact wine - which, truth be told, I’m not entirely convinced I like. Lots of citrus with an earthy “forest floor” musk to it. Swiftly after, its partner dish joins us at the table: corncob custard with chanterelles and fresh cheese. Immediately it’s clear to see how the sweet, earthy chanterelles and corn have come into partnership with this wine. Set savoury custards are not to my taste - I find that the texture is just a bit odd - but blackberries and thyme flowers make a surprising addition to this dish, creating that sense of the forest in every bite.
Next we have the fish course. Being right on the water, it’s almost a given that Inver would be offering exceptional fresh fish, and of course they are. The mackerel dish was perhaps my favourite. Its flavours, colours and textures are so clean and vibrant. The fish, just lightly cured, was exceptional but the most interesting thing on the plate was electric green sauce made from apple marigold. Once again, the use of flowers in the presentation and flavour of a dish really makes an impact. We are poured a glass of A Pedreira, Albarino from Rias Baixas which is just the perfect balance of salinity with citrus to really balance that vibrant sauce. I may have drunk my glass of this one a little too quickly...
No sooner have I swiped my last hunk of sourdough through the delightful green sauce, our plates are whisked away and replaced with another elegantly garnished dish. A gloriously fatty, blushing piece of pork, as well as a small homemade sausage is served with roasted squash, topped with their homemade pumpkin seed miso, and sea buckthorn puree. Overall the dish is a little too sweet for me, but the meat itself is up there with some of the most delicious pork I’ve ever eaten. The wine pairing does help to balance the sweetness somewhat. Another natural wine, this time a Pinot Noir made by a female producer in Burgundy. It was light, full of red fruit flavour and oh so easy to drink. We would have been very happy if the remainder of the bottle had found its way to our table.
Two of my favourite words on a menu are “cheese supplement” because it means that the restaurant’s ethos is perfectly in line with my own: always add cheese. I love cheese in all its forms however I find it a little humdrum when a quality restaurant offers a cheese board. The classic combination of one soft, one hard, one blue, some crackers and maybe some chutney has its time and its place but a tasting menu isn’t one of them. I find it much more interesting when the cheese course is treated as a course in its own right. I’m glad to report that Inver passed muster on that score. Two hearty slices of Lanark Blue were served with some homemade damson conserve, chunky homemade oat crackers and shards of rye crispbread scattered with salt and caraway seeds. We linger over it with a glass of French fortified red, Banyuls, and I am in heaven.
Alas, all good things much come to an end and our meal ended with a cake I can’t stop thinking about. A little pre-dessert of greengage sorbet was one of the most delicious things I have put in my mouth this year, and then as if that wasn’t wonderful enough, there was a cake. A honey cake with dulce de leche and burnt honey cream frosting, served with a raspberry granita. The balance of the intensely sweet honey cream with the sharp, bracing granita was a perfect close to our evening. And of course there was wine too. A fabulous dessert wine from the South West of France, made by a lady in her 90s no less who took over wine production after the death of her husband.
A good story can transport you to another world, completely engrossing you in the characters’ way of life and a good meal can do that too. This tasting menu was woven with stories. Stories of the Scottish countryside and coastline, stories of the producers and suppliers, the stories of the chefs, the stories of the little antique trinkets. In this remote, almost ethereal setting, listening to the stories of the 90 year old wine producer, the fisherman who caught the mackerel that morning, the chefs who have worked for weeks to create the sunflower seed miso, it feels like we are briefly transported.