Eating in Inverness

Eating in Inverness

You take the high life

With fine dining and one of the biggest arts venues in the country, Inverness is increasingly cosmopolitan. Kirstin Innes followed in Gordon Ramsay’s footsteps and found herself challenging her preconceptions

I’d never really thought about Inverness as a holiday destination. To be perfectly, shamefacedly honest, I hadn’t really ever thought much about Inverness. In an age of £20 flights to Europe, the idea of the weekend city break has come to mean something very different: a Friday afternoon dash to the airport with all the ensuing fuss and bustle, a whole other city, country, language and culture packed into a day and a half. It’s not something we necessarily think of doing in our own country any more; it’s certainly not something self-contained Central Belt-dwellers often think about doing in Inverness. In fact, despite the extensive regeneration projects happening all over Scotland’s newest city, we still tend to think of the increasingly cosmopolitan capital of the Highlands as a bit of a genteel backwater.

What lured me up there was a project called Dine Around the Highlands, which Visit Scotland has run annually for the last couple of years. The idea is to promote some of the very, very fine dining on offer in the region. The Highlands and Islands enjoys immediate access to some of the best, freshest local game, beef and seafood in the country, and over the past decade increasingly impressive chefs and the attendant rosettes and Michelin stars have gravitated towards the food. Dine Around the Highlands, which runs until the end of November, offers fixed-price two course meals for either £15 or £25 in 35 restaurants all over the north of Scotland.

It’s a long train ride up: approximately three-and-a-half hours from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Scotrail’s service times can be erratic. Bring a book, or a good conversation partner, and relax. Being Invernesian novices, we took a taxi the tiny distance from the station to our hotel. ‘Is there anywhere we can go dancing?’ my companion asked the taxi driver, who replied ‘Dancing? You’ve come to the wrong place for dancing.’ While I’m not sure that’s an entirely fair assessment of the city, he set the tone for the weekend: this was going to be life lived at a very different pace.

We were staying in the Glenmoriston Town House Hotel (recent winner of the Scottish Hotel Awards Best Hotel in Inverness trophy) which is actually two luxuriously appointed houses, each of them hiding an equally award-laden restaurant in their skirts. It was sheer glitz from the moment the car pulled up at the fairy-lit riverside entrance. None of the famed Highland hospitality here, though; the staff were all young, immaculately mannered and groomed, and apparently French to a woman. Were we really still in Scotland? Our room was tucked into the eaves of the second house, three floors up; it felt a little bit like staying in a spare room at a relative’s house, were your relatives possessed of meticulous taste in interior design, the best-stuffed feather mattresses in town and a host of French staff to carry groaning breakfast trays up three flights of stairs if you decide not to come down in the morning.

What we were there for, though, was the food. We were booked into Abstract (sister to the recently opened Edinburgh branch of the same name), the Glenmoriston’s flagship restaurant. You might know it from Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares – a few years ago this was La Riviera, a conservatory-view Italian restaurant with wicker chairs and no customers. Post-Gordon Ramsification, it’s a sleek panther of a place dripping with AA awards and Michelin commendations; the gently glimmering chandeliers, dark wood and minimal foliage giving it a bit of a 1920s feel. The other customers ooze wealth and good taste; the staff are distantly courteous and, again, as French as the menu. Canapés and gourmet chocolates are brought to us with cocktails before and after the meal respectively, while the cooking shows off exactly why our food experts are so excited about locally-sourced Scottish produce just now. The plump excess of lobster carpaccio or sweet, rare duck are tempered by perfectly-chosen accompaniments (pea ice cream; rowan jelly), locally dived scallops complemented by pork belly. This is true special-occasion dining, the sort of food you’re still remembering fondly weeks afterwards, which is what makes the accessibility offered by the Dine Around the Highlands promotion quite so remarkable.

Yes, yes, this is Inverness.

The next morning, after a red-faced waiter has indeed hauled our tailor-made breakfast up three flights of stairs to the room, we decided to see what else Inverness had to offer. The beautiful tree-lined walk along the River Ness, with its high spires, delicate sandstone crow-stepped buildings and crunchy autumn colours, is a good way to get acquainted with the length of the city. My map said that Eden Court Theatre, which reopened after a two-year refurbishment earlier this month as Scotland’s largest multi-arts centre, directly faces Abstract, but, perhaps still puggled after the excessive amount of food, we got lost and had to ask a sympathetic, artistic-looking woman for directions.

‘You can’t miss it,’ she said, ‘It’s that great mustard monstrosity over by the river.’

The revamped theatre might not have pleased all the locals, but it fulfills the remits of the city council’s ongoing regeneration project – exciting new design married to a forward-thinking arts policy that still respects the established pace of Inverness life. There might be a new buzz building about the city, but there’s no sense that this is empty modernisation for its own sake. In the weeks since it opened, the new theatre development has helped lure big names like Lenny Henry and Ardal O’Hanlon up north, but what’s most exciting about it are the huge airy studio spaces and increased support newly available to local artists, and an outreach programme (brilliantly named Out of Eden) engaging directly with the community. It seems to this outsider’s eye to be a regeneration aimed at halting the exodus of young talent down south rather than completely reinventing the city.

The town centre on a Saturday was bustling. Invernesian shopping doesn’t boast much more than the most northerly branches of various well-known chain stores, although the Six Cities Design Festival earlier this year has boosted the profiles of local knitwear and jewellery designers like Hazel Passmore. We followed winding cobbled streets set with large branches of Topshop and Marks & Spencer among others, until we reached Leaky’s – Scotland’s largest (and utterly magical) secondhand bookshop, all spiral staircases and teetering storeys of shelves set into the stained glass of a former church. No bashed-up Barbara Taylor Bradfords here, either – this bibliophile Nirvana boasts a brilliant, comprehensive collection of contemporary, 20th Century and Scottish literature. There is a tiny café tucked into the top floor where you can still get a convincingly genteel cup of tea and a scone, though. The times they are a-changing, but not that quickly.

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