I am partaking in a journey where I will appraise every non-franchise restaurant in town and review their food as well as their service. It is an attempt to expand my mind and appetite. Simultaneously, I will also be taking what I learn from these establishments and attempting to remake them with my extremely limited skill.
Invergarry Hotel, Invergarry, Scotland
I trusted my navigator’s guidance. My girlfriend directed me on our road trip to Skye, stopping just past lunchtime at the Invergarry Hotel located in a small town called, believe it or not, Invergarry. Here’s a bizarre fact that you honestly don’t care to know: when you read about places like Edinburgh and Inverness, know that there are more places which sound just like them in Scotland. Fraserburgh, Invergordon, Newburgh.
But today, it’s Invergarry and its namesake hotel, open all year according to its sign, a required disclaimer as we’ll soon discover. We were the only ones in the restaurant this afternoon, guaranteed to elicit maximum attention. The hotel is admittedly, unabashedly, Scottish. Even the carpets are in a tartan. The bathroom doubled as the meat locker…I think. Thankfully, the functional fireplace held an actual fire with actual wood so the dining area was warm this nippy afternoon. The décor was pleasant with numerous fishing poles hanging over scenic landscapes photographed probably just over the hill.
Taking a quick glance at the menu, I immediately felt compelled to order the haggis for a starter, though the dish which arrived looked nothing like what you’d expect, with the desired meat sitting in a deep dish under a roasted onion sauce. Still amazing. And while “the” girlfriend ordered a traditional Scottish breakfast, I tackled the beer battered west coast haddock with homemade tartare (their spelling) sauce, buttered peas & handcut chips.
Now this is going to come as a shock to some, but I’ve never had fish & chips before. Honest to God. I was still not over my fish phobia when I was in England last, only having conquered my aversion to seafood in the last year. I wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass. My girlfriend Scottish breakfast made my morning meals at the Mayfield house taste like slop. Both the haggis and black pudding were incredible. I know people will cringe at my mention of haggis, but it’s an amazing food. I could live on it. Seriously, it makes crack look like coffee.
Back to Invergarry’s hotel, I learned something this day about tipping in Scotland. It’s really difficult to do. No credit or debit card machine offers a tip option, and employees keep insisting on giving back change.
No. Keep it. Well. No. Dwaah!
Basically, you have to be clandestine, leaving change on the table and hoping they don’t notice it right away as you dive into your car and race off.
It should be noted that if you are driving from Edinburgh to Skye and are feeling a might peckish, there are not a lot of options come the afternoon. Perth is too close and most other restaurants we passed would probably fail a health inspection. I doubt anything else could have really measured to Invergarry Hotel. Great food, good service, and awesome accents.
Trial by fire.
Here we go. Me driving a car in the UK, a tiny Honda Jazz. The first thing people think of when they hear about UK roads is that cameras are everywhere, watching your every move while on the road. This may be true, but when you drive a car with a power-to-weight ratio of a Toro lawnmower, you don’t have to worry much about breaking the speed limit. And that is one impressive limit. We hit the highway with a limit of 70 mph (or 110 kph), which doesn’t seem like a lot, but consider that the single lane roads in Skye have a limit of 60 mph, which is friggin’ insane. Thankfully, one thing I won’t have to worry about is gas. My girlfriend was concerned about the mileage of the jazz. Maybe I’m of a warped mind on this. My Canadian car is a Lancer Evolution. Not only is its gas tank a pipette (thank you Clarkson), but it also isn’t particularly frugal. Even taking it easy, it can’t get more than 400 km in a single tank. This jazz can do 620 km without breaking a sweat. However, since Skye has two petrol stations on the entire island apparently, we needed to gas up before reaching its solitary bridge. But before that, we decided to stop for lunch in a place called Invergarry.
My Honda Jazz in Scotland
After lunch, we toured briefly around town where my girlfriend did her best to keep me from entering Scottish tourist shops and buying loads of crap and we eventually found ourselves at Edinburgh castle. Yeah, like that, kind of, accidentally, sort of, wandered our way unexpectedly to a thousand year old fortress atop and mountain crag. I’ve talked about the castle before but for those unwilling to check my archive, here are the highlights:
Edinburgh castle is both hideous and beautiful at the same time. My friends have remarked how unpleasant Scottish gothic architecture is. I love it. The more excessive the better and this castle has more history in a single stone than most castle have in their entire foundations. Yes, most of the features of the castle you see today are only 200 to 300 years old. This is because the castle has been assaulted by stone and fire no less than a half a dozen times in the last eight centuries. As one individual told me, “Not days would go by when the English would fight the Scottish for this castle. Then the Scottish would fight the English for this castle. Then the Scottish would fight the Scottish to keep in shape to fight the English for this castle.”
If you think Dover had history, Edinburgh sees the Napoleonic Wars and the First Barons’ War and raises with two Jacobite rebellions, a civil war, and the first and second Scottish Wars of Independence. If that’s not enough, the castle was almost obliterated in 1573 during the Lang Siege, the final nail in the coffin in the argument for castle defense—those with more cannons win everything. Yes, I admit enjoying this place more than Dover Castle. Yes, Dover had beautiful cliffs and a history of armed combat that included the age of nuclear weapons, but Edinburgh was all about classic medieval history, and tour guides and actors were everywhere willing and happy to share that history. I really can’t praise these people enough. I also can’t describe how good they are.
What was most odd was that this was my second visit to the castle, though it was her first. Yeah, and she lives here. After the castle, we walked along Grassmarket where we finally found ourselves in front of, admittedly, one of the more embarrassing icons of Scottish culture, the deep fried mars bar. The shop was small, with a single table and lots of counters selling various things which could be dipped in batter and made even more fattening than they already are. It all sounds disgusting, but have you ever really tried a deep fried Mars bar?
They. Are. A. Mazing.
Proper temperature ensures not a lot of oil gets absorbed into the batter, which was surprisingly light. The innards become gooey and hot. So good. Ahem…yeah, I’m gaining weight on this trip; there is no denying that.
The next day was primed to be a big one. My girlfriend and I were driving to Skye. Me, driving in England for the first time, on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. Damn you Napoleon for hating the British so much you made everyone else march on the opposite side. To prep for said trip, we had to pick up the car today. My demands were for SatNav (which was a necessity) and an automatic transmission. I can handle manuals but didn’t want to be bothered on this trip. I was also hoping for a small car with a personal wish that it be a car unavailable in Canada. I was gearing up for a Peugeot 208 or a Citroen C3. What I eventually found myself picking up this day was a Honda Jazz.
Just a Honda.
So what is a Jazz? To put it mildly, a Honda Jazz is what comes about when an executive looked at a Honda Fit and said, “You know what this car needs? Less horsepower.” So instead of some cute little hot hatch, I got saddled with a car churning less than a 100 hp. It was like driving a Dixie cup. It was so underpowered, it had problems going over the painted lines. This distress didn’t measure to the nightmare I had to go through to acquire the vehicle in the first place. My girlfriend’s family had gracefully ordered and paid for the car, for which I am eternally grateful, but when we arrived at the business, we were informed (after I had to return to my B&B for my passport) that I had to put $2000 on my credit card as a down payment for the car (a down payment her mother thought she already paid). When I mentioned that I intentionally keep my credit limit down and couldn’t afford the down payment, EasyRent (mentioned now so readers can forever avoid them) said that to reduce the deposit, the rental cost effectively doubled. When my girlfriend’s mother attempted to cancel the rental and get a refund, we were informed that a refund was not permitted because the car was rented off the internet, which was in fact a third party company. Oh joy. So I offered to pay the difference and picked up my rental. The next time I come to Scotland, I’m getting a Renault Clio Sport.
PATISSERIE VALERIE - The Food
Once again, I break form and review a chain. Patisserie Valerie locations can be found everywhere, but never outside of the UK, with most infesting London like one of those rashes which feel sooo good when you scratch them. Edinburgh has three…. Patisserie Valeries, not rashes. Why would I review such a location…maybe because I wish to support them.
You see, if Patisserie Valerie (and you have to know I am copy/pasting each time I mention them) was coffee-centered like every café chain in North America, I wouldn’t give them a second glance. By default, I would have preferred to avoid a chain in favor of a local independent, but I am glad I was convinced otherwise. For one, Patisserie Valerie centers on cakes, fantastic cakes. They are all about their bakery, so that I can get behind. The service presents Patisserie Valerie as much a restaurant over a traditional café where you pick and choose pastries twisting in a display guarded by plexi. They even offered a winter menu which Savanna and I took advantage of. Three courses for $12.95, and while Savanna ordered the hummus with smoked paprika and warm pita bread with the roast butternut squash stuffed with mozzarella, peppers, basil, and sundried tomato, I had the chicken liver & wild mushroom pate with crostini and sunflower shaped ravioli stuffed with asparagus, garden peas, butter and sage.
And there will be cake.
Or rather a slice of Valerie’s Gateaux. And they were amazing. We each chose one slice of different cakes, taken from a list of about twenty. I don’t know why anyone would want to visit Starbucks with awesome places like Patisserie Valerie sitting around. But, I guess, that’s the way of the world. When I was in London, my mother and I went into a Starbucks to buy a novelty souvenir for a family member. If I ever took her to Patisserie Valerie, that would pretty much be the end of her fascination with that—look, I don’t drink coffee, okay? I could never understand people’s fascination with it. I have tried it numerous times, with sugar, cream, vanilla, topped with chocolate and frothed to my desire, and I have never enjoyed a cup. Patisserie Valerie serves coffee and tea…and cake. So try Patisserie Valerie instead of ordering that double latte enema from the green siren for once.
Green siren, you know, the symbol for Starbucks. By the way, did you know that the siren represents manic obsession and death? I’m not kidding; in myth, they murdered you for looking pretty. Still undecided, try this: Go to Google Images and just enter Starbucks. What do you get? You get twenty variations of the logo with the occasional paper cup. The dominant attribute they are trying to convey, which Starbucks promotes, is their logo, not their actual product, though one may argue their logo IS their product. Now, enter Patisserie Valerie and see what you get.
Getting hungry aren’t you?
Edinburgh - Castle Rock, Princes Street, and the Scott Monument
Edinburgh - Princes Street Gardens
With my newfound knowledge of the Edinburgh transit system, I began my morning on Prince’s Street, the one area I watched from the fringe of a tour bus in 2011 but never had the opportunity to actually walk down. The plan was to meet Savanna at the National Gallery late in the afternoon. With camera in hand and vigor in my thighs (is that dirty?), I walked along the Princes Street Gardens.
For those requiring context, the gardens are bisected by a major road, separating them into Eastern and Western designations. The eastern park was currently roped off for the upcoming Edinburgh Christmas fair, thwarting my access to the Scott Monument for the time being, so I took to the western park, still under shadow of the impressive Edinburgh Castle. On their own, these parks aren’t terribly impressive. The views are great but considering square footage, it doesn’t hold a stick to some of the parks even in my home town, not taking into account that Princes Street Gardens is actually older than Canada.
That’s a fact I’ll be repeating often enough during this account. Basically, every attraction I visited can be aged by “Canadates”. For the purposes of this value, I used the signing of the Constitution of Canada in 1867, not the Statute of Westminster in 1931 because, well, there are people older than that still alive today. So that puts Edinburgh Castle between six and seven canadates, double that for the first recorded evidence of habitation on the Castle Rock the fortress sits upon. Princes Street Gardens is a mere 1.6 canadates. Here’s another perspective: My home town of Prince George will be turning 100 in 2015. That’s pubescent in Scottish terms.
So, I ended up walking along the path, snaking around the statues and snapping images of the castle as the sun rose behind the stronghold like a blessing from silent Gaelic deities. By the way, pronounce it “gallic” in Scotland, because you’ll be spoiling for a fight if you attempt the Irish variation.
Not long after noon, Savanna finally appeared, and after walking through the National Gallery, we made our way to a local café…
I’m starting this travelogue the day after my return. It’s been a fun ten days marked with great weather and better company. For those unaware, the purpose of this trip was to test the waters of a possible relation with a local, one which passed, making this easily the best vacation of my life (sorry mom). I was not picked up by Savanna, rather by her mother who greeted me with surprising jubilation, later leading me to one of the family’s three cars, a diesel Mini with a brake pedal on the left side—a tempting candy-like button which I was tempted to push but never did. From the airport, I was taken to a local Tesco’s in order to acquire a SIM card for my cell phone. I’ll go into the details of that disaster later, but at that moment I was still optimistic about it working. From there, I was dropped off at my rendezvous point, an adorable cottage-like establishment in convenient walking distance to the local University (or rather one of them). The pub went by the name…
Upon seeing the name of this establishment, I had to immediately research the name. It sounded awesome, like a guild of thieves or an unspoken division of the police department. COMING NEXT SUMMER TO CINEMAS: THE CROFTERS. They were Britain’s last line of—oh, crofters are farmers with small plots. Well, that’s disappointing. It’s like naming a pub The Farmers, which…okay, makes sense in Scotland; I was just expecting something a tad bit more grandiose. It sure looked liked a cool pub. It shared with its Canadian counterparts an overt use of stained wood and rustic decor. However, with the Crofters, it came as a result of an actual dated design and not the intention to appear old fashioned. Also, despite there still being a small number of TVs scattered about, I found no neon alcohol adverts. Good start. It was late in the afternoon; I was minutes away from meeting my future girlfriend for the first time. I knew she wouldn’t be hungry, so I took the liberty to start my Scottish experience on the right foot. I ordered a chicken pot pie.
They’re out of chicken.
OK, take two, I ordered a steak and ale pie. Better. By this time, my eyes fell on the nearby door, waiting for her to enter. I began to imagine sitting positions I should take, orientations to the door I should assume, opening words I would say. This was our first physical meeting. I gave the chair a slight pivot to face the exit and waited. As it turned out, there was another entrance to the Crofters, and I soon noticed Savanna already staring at me.
I guess I should discuss the food. Like Canada, Scotland appears to prefer making their portions a suitable size for Maori rugby players, and The Crofters is no exception. The pie was a proper one, not some bizarre deconstructionist example of what a pie could look like in some mirror universe where up is down, women are men, and cats are dogs. I had to break apart the thick pastry to get at the piping hot meaty interior. The pie itself was not big, but the stack of fries—oh, I mean chips—was immense, and I could barely finish the plate. The dish was good, an oddity apparently according to my companion given that so many pubs only serve meals as an afterthought to alcohol…so not much different than pubs in Canada then.
It’s difficult to separate my subjectivity from my objectivity in this case, ironic given my constant reminding that I support a critic’s right to be subjective in his or her reviews. The Crofters will be marked as the first meeting place of someone very special to me, so in that, I can’t offer anything critical about it. Thankfully, it wasn’t bad, but recalling that brief hour, I don’t know if there was anything I could pull out as being negative. There was an automatic gambling machine. Okay, that’s one.
Yup, no, that was it. The Crofters is worthy of praise in that it didn’t suck in any specific way, forcing a distraction from more important matters at hand. I mean, I didn’t go, “Holy hell, this food is good!” to my girlfriend the moment she walked in the door. I didn’t waste one second in my conversation with her discussing the qualities of the cuisine. It was enough to be remembered as not bad in a day that was kind of awesome. Take that for all it’s worth.
After a long walk including a pet shop where a chameleon pawed uselessly at the window to grab my fingers (and I fought the urge to buy him right then and there), we rode a bus back to Savanna’s colossal home—a palace with a surrounding wall—a perfect stronghold against the zombie apocalypse. Seriously, this place was amazing—wood gilding every inch of floor, a kitchen worthy of Ramsay, and a glass-topped dining hall with wooden round table where opposite patrons sat in different time zones. After connecting with the family, I eventually was taken to my eventually Bed and Breakfast…
Considering that Trip Advisor is the source of a majority of my readers, I figured I should expand my reviews and include other locations like hotels and tourist attractions. If one is nitpicking my mission statement, I’ll argue that breakfast is included every morning.
Why did I select Mayfield? It was the closest B&B to my girlfriend’s house. It also helped that it was also one of the cheapest B&B’s in town…at least when I excluded ones with shared bathrooms. My trip was on a limited budget and I was willing to forgive a lot. Scottish B&B’s are an unconventional sort, to put it mildly. The houses are small, packed ass-to-elbow with other like buildings, barely holding eight rooms at best. Single-bed rooms are generally miniscule, and I have no problem with this. I could never understand this appeal of some to dump so much money on a hotel. As long as it’s safe and in a good location, why would I need anything more? Like room service, why would I ever require room service? Why give me a reason to stay inside? If I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t have gone on vacation in the first place. I’d just stay home. So all I need is a bedroom, a bathroom, and enough space to drop my luggage. It also helps if the bed is big enough to fit me outstretched.
Mayfield measures up because for the price ($523 for ten days), I got a roof over my head, a queen-sized bed, a TV, a tray of tea and coffees, and a bathroom. The same key which opened my room also opened the outside door, unlike other places which practically enforce a curfew. However, I must be up front with some elements worthy of alarm. For one, I slammed my head on the roof at least three times given that it was slanted over the bed. Two, the shower is so small, that I had to enter it sideways and if I was still obese like when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have been able to fit in at all. Three, despite making the bed during my absence, they never changed the sheets.
Don’t ask me how I know that; I just do.
Four, the breakfasts had a lot to be desired. I had been hoping for a traditional Scottish breakfast, but what I got was clearly and unmistakably English. No haggis. No black pudding. I got a spoon of hot beans, an inconsistently poached egg, a single link of sausage, a single strip of bacon, and a handful of toast. The only saving grace was that it was part of the stay and precluded my need to buy breakfast on my own.
Five, it got cold. I had arrived in Edinburgh the last week of November, but that doesn’t mean I should awake to a bathroom cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey (It’s a nautical term; I’m sure I’ve used it before). I had to leave the door open to prevent sub-zero temperatures when I tried to shower. This forced my little radiator to work overtime as heat bled through the badly constructed glass windows in the bathroom.
Would I return? Of course…as stated, it’s the closest B&B to my girlfriend’s house. And there are other reasons. Across the street is a bus-stop, and every 30 minutes, the #42 bus will take you right to the heart of the city, past several noteworthy tourist hot spots. Mayfield is a 40 minute walk to Edinburgh castle and, if you walk the opposite direction, a 40 minutes’ walk to Craigmiller castle—a fact I discovered two days before I had to return. Only in Scotland can you take a shortcut through a park and find a castle.
You know port is from Portugal, don’t you? It’s in the name. Don’t feel bad, I didn’t know until six months ago. Now I drink it every week as part of my Ramsday ritual. So imagine me waiting this long before attempting a recipe including port as an ingredient. And it has garlic, so everyone should love it. I guess this means each time I make something requiring red wine, I’m actually using port. So wait, what do I do now? It asks for both. I guess I’ll have to buy a new bottle.
As for the end result, it’s sirloin beef, why wouldn’t it be good? No weird ingredients and a simple process…just let your mother make it. Yes, I admit, I prepped the ingredients, took it to my mother’s kitchen, and while I prepped, she went and finished the dish. No regrets.
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 x 1 kg sirloin beef
1 head of garlic, broken into cloves
A few sprigs of fresh thyme and a few thyme leaves
12 large Charlotte potatoes, peeled
150g unsalted butter
16 medium shallots, peeled
285ml red wine
Preheat the oven to l80°C/350°F. Season the sirloin well, then heat some olive oil in a frying pan and brown the meat all over. Transfer it to an ovenproof dish. Add the garlic cloves, a sprig or two of thyme and a little fresh olive oil. Cook in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes, then remove the dish from the oven and set aside. With this timing the sirloin will be nice and rare — cook it for longer if you prefer.
Meanwhile, in another pan heat some more olive oil and color the potatoes all over until nice and golden. Add a few more sprigs of thyme and the butter and cook slowly until they are soft in the middle — 15-20 minutes.
In a small pan, sauté the shallots in olive oil until slightly colored. Drain off the excess oil and add the port, red wine and thyme leaves. Simmer until the liquid has reduced and the shallots are cooked and glazed like rubies. Cut the beef into generous slices and arrange in a serving dish with the potatoes, shallots and garlic.
On Wednesday, I am leaving for Scotland. It’s not permanent, though sometimes I wonder if it would be better if it was. It is not meant as a sight-seeing journey. It is not meant as a business trip. And unfortunately, it is not meant as means to make more Prince Gastronome entries…that will still happen of course. I’ll visit café, bistros, and restaurants. Small gems and critically acclaimed favorites. Starting next week, I’ll be posting a lot more than usual. You’ve all been warned.
This is important. It’s good, it’s worth making, but do not leave anything behind. Seriously, no leftovers. Reheating this dish, whether in the microwave or in an oven, sucks. It sucks worse than microwaving leftover McDonald’s French fries. With that out of the way, cook on…
1kg fresh asparagus trimmed
1 large loaf of white bread, sliced, crusts removed
3 eggs, beaten
300 ml double cream (or whipping cream for those living in North America)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A grating of nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 200 C. Cook the asparagus in boiling salted water for 7-8 minutes and refresh under cold water. Grease a 22cm loaf tin with a little of the butter, then line it with bread slices, leaving a few for covering the top. Overlap them a little a gently press them down to make sure the bread lines the tin snugly. Mix the eggs and cream together, add the parmesan, and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Now place half the asparagus in the tin and season. Pour over half the egg mixture and repeat, layering the asparagus and egg mixture again. Butter the remaining bread and lay on top, butter side up. Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 45 minutes until golden, then turn out of the tin and let it cool slightly before carefully cutting into slices.