A great place to eat, right on Loch Fyne in western Scotland. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
‘Living up here you get used to the changeable weather. In fact we only start to worry when the weather doesn’t change.’ So we were told by Rob Latimer, who runs Inver restaurant on the south-west coast of Scotland where his partner Pam Brunton cooks so memorably well.
This chimed with what we had witnessed during our Sunday lunch. Out of the restaurant’s many windows we watched bright sunshine give way in an instant to dramatically heavy downpours as the tide came in on Loch Fyne a few feet away. The rainbow that formed a perfect arch over Castle Lachlan across the loch was the seventh we were to see in the 24 hours we spent in this part of the world less than two hours’ scenic drive from Glasgow.
So when is the best time to eat at Inver? Should it be for their four-course set dinner menu with an overnight stay and breakfast in one of their comfortably stylish bothies? Or for a lunch when one can enjoy Pam’s perhaps freer cooking style? My advice would be to go for a Sunday lunch, but go early.
We were among the first to arrive one Sunday lunchtime at the end of last month but we had already missed the Loch Creran oysters. Our three orders for whole cooked crab prompted Rob to announce that that was all the kitchen had left, while my order for the grilled halibut head led our waitress to wipe this particular dish off the specials board.
Serving the freshest fish and shellfish by the sea might seem rather commonplace nowadays in the UK as it has long been across Europe. But what distinguishes Brunton’s cooking was what accompanied these ingredients.
It was not just the tender sweetness of the crabmeat but the richness of the sauce that had been mixed with some of the brown crabmeat that was to make this combination taste so luscious and made all the hard work of unpicking the meat an extra pleasure. So, too, the liquor in a bowl of mussels which was in fact no more than a reduction of fino sherry and the juices that the mussels had been cooked in with a touch of butter – a perfect partner for their home-baked bread and home-made salted butter.
Yet even better was the perhaps more modest starter described simply as beetroot soup with horseradish and brambles. A white pottery bowl was almost full of diced, cooked beetroot and salad leaves from their nearby grower, Kate Glasgow. On to this was poured the contents of a jug of deliciously comforting beetroot soup that was the perfect temperature, neither too hot nor too cold, the whole spiced by and swirled with fresh horseradish cream.
These thoughtful combinations continued. Tender young leeks and a thin spreading of ‘nduja (the Calabrian pork and chilli paste) on top of my halibut head; mussels and coastal greens with the fillet of halibut from the nearby island of Gigha; and the winter chanterelles that covered a precisely grilled piece of brill. The precision of tastes and textures continued with an almond cake paired with a plum sorbet and rye donuts served alongside a wild-pepper ice cream. This is not crazed foraging but a thoughtful use of the best local ingredients.
With a bottle each of white Quinta de Maias 2017 Dão and juicy red Unculin 2016 Bierzo, my bill for five came to £275.50 without service.
But it is also the co-operation between a thoughtful landlord and this highly talented couple that has made the restaurant possible.
The building, originally an eighteenth-century fisherman’s cottage, sits on the 1,500-acre estate of Euan Maclachlan of Maclachlan, so-named because he is chief of Clan Maclachlan. After years of renting it out as a café which failed to make a profit, he was left wondering what to do with it. Enter Brunton and Latimer, who, having cooked in Belgium, were looking to open somewhere in their homeland. A text message from friends that this site might be available brought them back to have a look. Although the day they came to visit was ‘dreich’ (miserable in the local dialect), they have in their own words ‘very good imaginations’.
Maclachlan was impressed by their enthusiasm and professional experience and, appreciating that the whole region would be boosted by something more adventurous than another café (although Inver does offer tea and excellent cakes), he negotiated a 10-year lease with them. The bothies, designed by Brunton’s architect father and financed by Mclachlan, are another example of the growing links between a concerned landlord and this very determined couple.
The final layer of charm is provided by the restaurant’s interior. The couple drove to Inver four years ago in their Citroen Berlingo crammed with their personal possessions. They had six weeks to opening and no budget for decoration so put all that they owned into and onto the walls of the restaurant: the books; the posters; the taxidermy; a complete blue picnic hamper set; a record player; and their record collection that plays The Band, The Rolling Stones and Etta Jones inter alia.
What Brunton and Latimer have achieved in the past four years at Inver is extraordinarily impressive. I can only hope that the weather keeps on changing.
Inver restaurant, Stathlachlan, Strachur, Argyll & Bute, PA 27 8BU, Scotland; tel +44 (0)1369 860 537