Published 1 December 1996 Style Magazine 178th article
Highland clearance: Kathryn Matheson, Michael Winner and Phillis Robb at Lochinver's Larder (Vanessa Perry)
The Altnaharrie Inn has two Michelin stars and three Ronay stars. It's in the western Highlands over the water from Ullapool. My friend Laurence Marks is a serious foodie. With his partner Maurice Gran he writes half our television hits, from Birds of a Feather to Goodnight Sweetheart. He was going to book the Altnaharrie and asked me to come along. I am not always agog at starred restaurants. In particular, Laurence and I are vastly unimpressed by the three-Michelin-starred The Waterside Inn. I've had four meals there over 30 years, on every occasion because someone else wanted me to go. Two were indifferent. One, at the 60th birthday of Nico Ladenis, was sensational, the next was dire.
"It's a dreadful place," said Laurence, as we sat in a boat looking at incredible scenery, seals and porpoises. "I don't know how they get away with it." Would Altnaharrie fare better? I do not intend to tell you. I can say it's a smallish house that takes only 16 people, you have to gel there by ferry. I landed in the back "garden" by helicopter. About the food, my lips are sealed.
A few days before going I decided to reveal who was to be in the second room Laurence had reserved. Fred, the husband of Gunn Eriksen who cooks, went into a serious frisson. "Er, we don't seek publicity," he said. "Well, you didn't ask me to come, so you didn't seek it," I replied. Fred made it clear they did not want to be reviewed. That's fair. It's their place, they can dictate the house rules. I suggested I would show them the review for approval, then realised this was ridiculous. Later I phoned Gunn and said; "Do you want to take a chance?" She did not. So that's it.
I can inform you about other meals up north. When I told Fred I'd arrive at 12.30, he said: "Our boat's being mended. Could you come later?" I thought, "Theirs can't be the only boat on a coastal location." I contacted the local police station, where the sole inhabitant, PC Shiela Slaughter, said I should phone Murdo Mackenzie. Murdo had boats, would travel.
Where should I eat? Murdo recommended the Mariner's Restaurant at the Morefield Motel in Ullapool. David Smyrl owns it. He, too, got a bit worried when I rang. "We're only a fast-food fresh lobster place," he said. When I got to the quayside David picked us up and drove to his lounge bar, the restaurant being closed as it was out of season. The chefs specials included half lobster grilled with garlic, mussels served with a jacket potato and dressed salad. They were the best mussels I've ever eaten. Fat, juicy, not shrivelled like they usually are in London. Lobster good, potato very good. Vanessa had turbot. Fresh, excellent. As pleasant a meal as you could ask for.
The next day we went on a tour of the Highlands. Majestic scenery, no real towns. Laurence's wife, Brigitte, had been there before. She took us to Lochinver's Larder in Lochinver. It looked dreadful from the outside. Frozen ﬁsh fingers if we're lucky, I thought. I checked another place a few doors away, but that looked even worse. I entered with a heavy heart. The first room bad a counter on the right. It was full of pies. My spirits rose. "Do you make those here?" I asked. "Yes," said a nice girl. "When were they baked?" Most of them were made that morning, a few the day before. There were 16 different pies! From leek and mushroom to venison and cranberry to chicken curry. Above were rows of home-made Cakes that looked amazing. But awful cakes can look as amazing as good ones. I had a steak and ale pie and a chicken, cheese and potato one. Both absolutely tiptop. We ate in a large room overlooking the loch, an old church, wonderful scenery. Then I chose a chocolate fudge cake and a vanilla fudge cake. Totally, absolutely, incredibly historic. Touch of moisture, delicious icing, perfect. My only regret was that I couldn't go through the lemon cake, pineapple fruit tart, shortbread tarts, carrot cake, rhubarb and strawberry pie, banoffi pie - which is a creamy thing with banana - and the homemade cherry cheesecake, to name but a few. "Who's going to eat all this?" I asked the owner, Ian Stewart. "Local people." he said. "Tourists." "But there's only us and two other people in the place," I said. Ian did not look worried. I'd liked to have helped him by eating everything. I'd done pretty well having two main courses, two desserts, a chocolate milkshake and coffee. That's what the Highland economy needs. Me. Every day.
I am interested to know what Michael Winner's views are on the issue of serving tap water in restaurants. On a recent visit to Bonjour Vietnam, a restaurant in west London, not only did they refuse to serve it - even though we had already ordered our food and drink - but refused rudely, saying that if they provided tap water for one customer, every table would want some. We were eventually told that we would not be served at all for questioning their policy, which meant (it was now 11pm) a £16 trip to Islington, to a restaurant we knew would serve us food and drinks, including tap water, until 1am.
Paul Taylor London N6
The lack of a dress code for men in restaurants is becoming more and more widespread. Even in the best places they are permitted to remove jackets and ties, and some look as though they have just finished a shift on a building site. I find older men are worse culprits than young ones. Women take time and trouble to dress up, and the lack of attention to dress from men can only be an insult to the women of their party and others in the restaurant. Is it too late to appeal to all men over the coming festive season to have a little consideration? It would be a brave restaurateur who would insist upon a decent standard.
Doreen Crosby West Kilbride, Ayrshire