Monachyle Mhor, an exciting restaurant with rooms, in the Trossachs of Scotland conveniently 90 minutes' drive from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Prestwick airports, is difficult to miss. It is the only pink building in the atmospheric glen of Balquhidder.
The six-mile, single track road which leads to the restaurant, however, is difficult to navigate as it wiggles through a small village where Rob Roy is buried, skirts the side of the tranquil Loch Ouie and leads towards the cattle grid which marks the entrance to the restaurant just before heading off towards the next, smaller loch.
The squat, rather undistinguished farmhouse has an interesting history – its pink colour denoted that it was a Jacobean safe house centuries ago – but has seen the most radical change over the past two decades since the Lewis family initially took over the surrounding 2,000-acre farm and subsequently opened it as an unassuming hotel serving sandwiches, scones and the odd drink to locals, walkers, and deer stalkers.
Tom Lewis, 34, grew up here with his brother who now runs the farm and then set off to work his passage round the world in the most unlikely training for any chef. "I sheared sheep in New Zealand, Canada and the US," he said with a smile that obviously recalled happy times, " and worked on a cattle farm in northern Australia. Then I came back here eight years ago and realised that I had to learn a profession so I thought that I would teach myself how to cook."
The first two months were terrible. " I hated it, simply couldn't get the hang of anything and really thought of giving it all up. But then I realised that if I was going to cook I had to do it properly so I picked two cookery books, La Potiniere Cook Book by Hilary Brown (a small restaurant south of Edinburgh which pioneered the best, simple Scottish cooking in the 1980s but is now sadly closed) and Larousse Gastronomique and I went through them from beginning to end."
It is difficult to reconcile such tentative first steps with the confident yet sensitive food that emanated from a pretty small kitchen. An amuse bouche of a very fresh oyster with shallot vinaigrette; two plump West Coast scallops which were expertly sautéed and served on top of fresh pea rough puree that had been given a dash of wasabi, Japanese horseradish, to lift it further. The soup course, seemingly obligatory once past a certain imaginary line in Scotland, was fresh spinach and coconut, while the main courses ranged from a delicate dish of monkfish tails with anchovy butter to slices of what the menu described as 'marauding' venison (shot locally intruding into a neighbour's garden or field). And the raspberry sabayon and miniature raspberry soufflé, with fruit from nearby Cromie, were sensational.
And while Lewis has obviously been happily sucked in by the discipline of cooking, there is no doubt that what obviously attracts him to the rather constricted four walls of his kitchen that is now his home for twelve hours a day is that his new role allows the whole of Scotland to come to him. "The produce is just fantastic and it's all year round. My fish are day-old, caught on prawn boats that don't stay out over night although it was initially difficult for me to deal directly with the best suppliers because sadly still too much of the best fish that is landed in Scotland goes straight off to London, Paris or Madrid. But there's no shortage of venison, which I love curing as bresaola as a first course as well as preparing as a main course, and there's great beef and lamb, wild mushrooms and wild garlic, as well. We are just about to have the best soft fruit in the world. And then it's the game season."
But our meal was distinguished by several other factors. The first two, and the more intangible, were that the portion sizes and the timing of the service, something that can vary horribly and for no good reason from one night to another, were absolutely correct. Then there were the vegetable accompaniments which incorporated all those ingredients which are particularly tiresome to prepare at home; salsify with the venison, diced and sautéed Jerusalem artichoke bottoms with the monkfish. Then there were the staff.
As in so many instances in Scottish hospitality it was actually difficult to spot the Scot. Lewis grew up in South Wales and his Australian wife Angela now manages the restaurant and hotel with a fellow Australian, a South African (who heard of the place via the internet), an Irishman, two from Cornwall and Cheshire and a token Scot. All are attracted, Lewis believes, by the beauty of the place, its relative remoteness and the fact that it is very firmly part of a working farm.
Demonstrating a sense of self criticism that must have been a vital part of his evolution as a chef, Lewis hopes that, with the exception of his wife, they won't stay too long. "I want them all to go off, travel and come back here with all that they have learnt so that we can continue to improve. I am conscious that we could become a little too isolated."
Lewis and his wife had in fact only recently come back from London where they had eaten very well and he seemed to want to drop into a bout of self doubt that often envelopes chefs. But in my opinion the self motivation that has taken him so far in eight years will carry him much further. And with a varied band of followers from golfers, shooters, walkers and just food and wine lovers as a loyal customer base, there will be a considerable well-informed group to ensure that standards do not fall.
In fact, while eating and drinking so well in such an intimate restaurant, which seats 36 maximum, and watching the other side of the glen through the gloaming, my only criticism was of the unnecessary piped music which played all night. Then I went outside to see whether it all looked as wonderful there and realised that there is another challenge confronting the Lewises – would they please get rid of those dratted midges?
Monachyle Mhor, Balquhidder, Perthshire FK119 8PQ
tel +44(0)1877-384622 fax +44(0)1877-384305 US toll free 1-800-365-6537