Glenapp Castle ~ Press Reviews
The Herald Magazine (Saturday 10 June 2006)
SILENCE IN CLASS,
Where to begin? At those electronic gates? Black, enormous and firmly closed. With the intercom? The voice from its speaker gives instructions on how to find the castle (a mile – crikey - into the wooded grounds, turn right at the Monkey Puzzle). At the little car park? There’s a woman waiting there, not for a bus, but to greet guests. Just me. Gulp. Or do we begin at the castle itself, with its bronze cannon, grand drawing room, crackling fire and, somewhat inevitably, copies of Country Life? Nope. None of the above.
Lets begin in the dining room. Deep-red wallpaper, cracked oils, hovering staff (I’ll return to them), a view over the formal gardens way below and a bone china cup containing a Velouté of pea and smoked ham with cep oil.
Now, we could pause here because you, like me, might be thinking, “Aha, another Scottish country house experience - not like we’re short of them” And it is - or rather was, until the soup - for what else is a Velouté?- arrives. Summer peas, an after taste of soft, smoky ham, then a light and soothing balm of mushroomy oil. Velvety indeed. Sensational.
But let’s go on to the beautiful and distinctively flavoured truffled salad of artichokes with sharp sorrel leaves. They’re delicate and delicious. Cuisine minceur, the French once called this. Light, but not on the loafers. Phew.
Now, a brief explanation. This is Glenapp Castle – jaw-droppingly handsome, views over Ailsa Craig, an exquisite restoration and a history so detailed I instantly forget it (apart from the bit about it being built by some bloke from Glasgow). It’s the sort of place day trippers would love, were they welcome. They’re, ahem, definitely not, hence the firmly closed gates, the sign saying no booking, no entry and the slight awkwardness on the phone when you enquire about dinner. Exclusivity is what they’re selling here, the food is what they’re underselling, if I can put it delicately.
Locked up in the kitchen is Matt Weedon, former head chef at the Michelin-starred L’ortolan in Reading. And apparently, nobody has told him the script for huntin’ n’shooting fare. Nobody has mentioned stilted, roasted and stuffed. Crikey. Look at this – a bowl containing poached langoustines, poached scallops, a perfumed tomato essence and, nestling at the bottom, a rich asparagus mousse. Unusual? Yes. Dangerous? Possibly. Especially when that mousse starts to mix creamily with the tomato essence. But it works. Perfectly. As does the main course of thick, pink slices of Ayrshire beef, melting braised onions, a speckled mushroom Duxelles and a red wine sauce that actually, for once – hurrah – contributes something to the dish. How many main courses in how many restaurants with Michelin aspirations (which this obviously has) fail to live up to the rest of the meal? How many just don’t get the balance right? Loads, believe me. Well done, Mr Weedon.
The quenelle of Dunsyre Blue cheese that follows? Correct combination again. Exactly the right amount of pinot noir jelly, exactly the right combination of savoury, and sharp and sweet. Even this showy dessert is almost perfect. Brought to the table is a translucent, glittering dome of spun sugar, Nougatine containing a vanilla parfait and a strawberry sorbet. An irresistible tap on the dome and it shatters, the top falling away to leave the dessert sitting in a little half-dome. Now how do they do that? Almost perfect? Well I’m not too sure about the rhubarb and raspberry combination it sits in. Bitter? A minor point in an otherwise superb meal bursting with quality rather than stifling with quality. The whole experience? Almost perfect?
Yes, you’re right. I did say I’d mention the service. It’s extremely pleasant, quite friendly and technically spot-on, but perhaps just a bit too tense. If I have a reservation (and I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have got in) it is this. Glenapp Castle is stunning and the food outstanding, but the trap for restaurants at the very highest level, and one this teeters on the edge of, is atmosphere. It’s too quiet, too hushed, too reserved and it becomes stilted. Uncomfortable? Intimidating? It’s not quite that at Glenapp, but it’s perfectly possible for everyone to loosen up a little and for the place still to be exclusive. Achieve that and Glenapp will be a truly outstanding experience.