If, when you’re out for dinner, you ask for a gin and tonic, and get offered a choice of Gordon’s, Tanqueray or Sapphire gin, you can be reasonably sure that you’ve ended up somewhere that pays attention to detail, and prides itself on offering a selection based purely on quality. The Darroch Learg Hotel in Ballater (near Aberdeen) is such a place.
With three AA rosettes every year since 1997, it is recognised as one of Scotland’s top restaurants, and this recognition is thoroughly deserved. Two comfortable lounges (one smoking lounge) allow you to enjoy an aperitif or an after-dinner coffee in the kind of surroundings you only see in costume dramas. The dining room is half made up of a large conservatory, which allows the evening sun to sparkle in through the trees of the nearby forest. The whole place exudes old-fashioned charm and timeless style.
All of this would be for nothing, though, if the food wasn’t up to standard. No danger there. The tortellini of crab and langoustine I started with were large and succulent, with the shellfish inside chopped to a moist, flaky consistency. The home-baked breads (sourdough or wholegrain) served with the first course came in very handy for mopping up the crab sauce, and leaving my plate perfectly clean.
For my main course, I had the fillet of Aberdeen beef, with braised shin and green vegetables, served on a bed of creamed celeriac and Madeira sauce. (It was either that or the veal on a bed of puy lentils, with a gratin of potatoes and butternut squash; but fortunately my wife had that, and I could steal a nibble of hers.) Perfectly cooked, fresh fillet tastes buttery and creamy, and this was a fine example of the species. The braised shin provided a rich, almost gamy strength to the dish, while the peas and the green beans were crisp and ripe with their own flavour.
My dessert was crème brulee with toffeed apple rings and apple sorbet. The caramel crust of
the crème brulee was thin, but the body of it was deep and thick, and when I’d scraped the bottom of the ramekin as much as politely possible, the base was covered in tiny vanilla seeds… Rich and delicious.
The wines we had with the meal were an Alsatian gewürztraminer and an Australian Merlot, both from the lower-priced end of the 57-page thick wine list, but perfectly tasty and appropriate nonetheless. For those with more sophisticated tastes, the selection was elaborate, though my personal favourite (Tokaji, for dessert) was absent.
Overall, the quality of the meal was excellent, and the surroundings luxurious. The hotel is run by Nigel and Fiona Franks, who work hard to make every guest feel special, and succeed admirably. The price for this three-course experience is a mere £33 a head (excluding wine), and that kind of value is hard to find these days. If you’re visiting the area, you’d have to look really hard for a reason not to choose the Darroch Learg for an evening out.