Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to try a meal by chef Richard Massey at Ullinish Lodge on the West Coast of Skye.
Despite living here for a year it’s not a place I knew much about; I’d heard the name here and there but never thought to investigate. Skye is a surprisingly large island with a constantly evolving hospitality scene and it’s easy to miss places that aren’t always in the main guidebooks.
It took just over an hour to drive there from my house. The winter nights have drawn in so quickly; one week the evenings are light, the next it’s like the switch has been flicked off.
I bounced along the single track road in the dark and the shady outlines of sheep and deer moving just outside the beam lent an eerie feel to the journey.
I arrive at 7:30 on the dot. It’s a blustery evening so I hurriedly crunch over the gravel to escape the chill wind.
As I rush through the doors I’m greeted with warmth twice over… Firstly with cosy relief from the cold then secondly with a kind welcome from Brian, one half of the husband and wife team who run the lodge.
Inside it’s old-fashioned.
This isn’t a criticism; when coming in from the cold to the fire and soft furnishings, it’s just right. It has the feeling of a large home.
Brian shows me to the lounge where guests are invited to have drinks and canapes before moving into the dining room. I was the only person there and I took advantage of it by greedily nabbing the best sofa spot in front of the hearth.
Despite still being in high season the lodge was quiet. A number of guests hadn’t turned up, perhaps they’d got lost on Skye’s endlessly wiggling single track roads?
The dining room was similarly traditional in style but the dimmer lighting softened the smartly starched white tablecloths and made it feel relaxed.
It felt like a place where the food served would be rich and French-influenced. Gentleman’s club food; lots of red wine reductions, beef fillet and other expensive but heartily robust things.
But then the amuse bouche arrived and I realised that this wasn’t going to be an average country house hotel meal…
The little appetiser consisted of a fat, frilly oyster perfectly perched on the wide rim of a raised glass plate. As I leaned in to inspect it I was joined by the owner, Brian, armed with a teapot from which he poured a little liquid into a hole at the centre of the plate.
Being served by the host himself is a nice introduction.
From the hole came an eruption of dry ice vapour scented with lemon verbena; it swirled round the oyster and cascaded over the rim of the plate. With the fronds of seaweed poking up through the clouds it was a perfect impression of sea foam flowing onto a Skye shore.
This was pure showmanship.
The oyster was intensely creamy and left almost bare save a small nest of dressed cucumber noodles. I have a lot of respect for a chef who is confident enough in his ingredients to let them speak for themself. It also hints that this is a kitchen that uses showmanship to enhance the dining experience rather than a smoke-and-mirrors tactic to distract us from less-skilled cooking.
True to this clue both the starter and main were artful, clever dishes.
My quail starter was the kind of dish that’s so full of flavour it can only exist in starter-size. Too intense to be supersized but perfect in miniature.
Each tiny element was considered, right down to the tiny raisins that were soaked to such a level of plumpness that they were like exploding doll-sized sweets.
The choice for mains was pork or turbot. As I don’t eat fin fish the choice was made for me. Being extra difficult I usually also avoid pork but as most of the meat at Ullinish Lodge is locally-sourced from familiar Skye-based producers such as Orbost Farm I didn’t mind making an exception.
*The menu here is a two-choice one so if you’re a particularly fussy eater (like myself) it’s really worth letting the lodge know well in advance if there’s anything you don’t eat; it’ll make everything easier for both you and the kitchen!*
Again with the main, the balance of flavours here was spot on.
For me the ham hock croquette outshone the fillet; the little breaded parcel was intensely piggy with a satisfying saltiness that worked nicely with the milder neep pieces.
I enjoyed the playful ideas such as the apple sauce ‘apple’ (using spherification to remodel the gel back into a fruit shape).
It’s those kind of touches that show that the chef is enjoying flexing his creativity.
If I’m going to be picky about this dish I could say that perhaps it didn’t need as many elements. I could have enjoyed this dish just as much without the fillet or the pork pie, although the latter adds another fun part to some serious cooking skills.
When it comes to puddings I’m not usually that fussed.
If I’ve spied a cheese trolley meandering round a dining room I’ll usually eschew the sweet course altogether and sit in anticipation for that exciting moment when the wheels stop next to your chair and you get to peruse the tray like Augustus Gloop at a pick n’ mix counter.
Perhaps this disinterest is because I often feel like chefs play safe with puddings. Those tried and tested flavours, all delicious, but rarely as interesting and exciting as the preceding savoury courses.
At Ullinish you get both cheese and a pud -the best of both worlds for us indecisive gluttons.
First came a small cheese taster plate (basic but good) followed by a choice of two desserts; either a rhubarb crumble souffle or ‘dark chocolate, sour cherry, apple’.
I opted for the latter and couldn’t have been more pleased… It was a STUNNING dessert.
The not-too-sweet, cherry mousse-filled chocolate sphere that sat guarded by gently boozy cherries and zippy variations of apple is carved into my memory as one of those plates that when you think of it you smack your lips and murmur “ooh, I could eat that again right now…”
In fact, the apple components were so vibrant that the smell of fresh green juice rose off the plate even once it was gone (perhaps I just ate it so quickly that the smell didn’t even have time to dissipate!)
As I said, I’m not a pudding fan so I don’t say that lightly.
I’m lucky enough to have eaten at a lot of top restaurants…
*please excuse shameless name-dropping here*
Aikens, Ramsay, Kitchin, Kerridge, Roux… I’ve enjoyed loads of incredible meals.
But which puddings do I remember from any of those visits?
I took my coffee and petit fours back in the sitting room.
From the modernist world of dry ice and sodium alginate I find myself once again amidst lace tablecloths and doilies.
The petit fours are the sole little reminder of the cooking that’s just gone. One was a chocolate truffle with a black-hole intensity so strong that I could barely take more than a nibble. The other was a Laphroaig marshmallow in a freeze-dried raspberry coating that was so airy it felt like it was made with the ‘angels share’. It was such a tiny part of the meal but, again, it is one that sticks in the memory.
In fact, all of the small intermediate dishes were done well.
To stop myself from rambling (more than I already have) I’ve only focused on the main dishes. Yet the canapes, the warm breads, the palate cleanser and, of course, the petit fours were all well-executed.
I’ve got to admit that I came away from Ullinish Lodge pretty surprised.
I like to think I know a lot about the foodie scene on Skye, how did I miss this?
I’d seen a couple of photos with handpicked veg and herbs from the kitchen garden on Twitter but that was about all I knew about this restaurant…
(FYI, the little microgreens on each plate weren’t always necessary. Though in the case of that pudding they gave a barely-perceptible note of pepperiness.
But, the idea made me smile -a little example of a chef who takes joy in growing his own produce)
Not only that, the entire meal is priced at £55 before drinks and service. For this level of cooking that’s fantastic value.
*For transparency’s sake I must state that I was treated to this meal by the folks at the lodge. However, you mustn’t take that as a sign that my praise has been bought. If it was a crap meal I’d say so. Or at least, I’d just give a very brief, factual description of the food and leave you to realise the rest!*
If you were to ask me to sum up Ullinish in brief I would say that it’s like a embodiment of Skye itself, a condensed example of this island as a whole…
On the face it’s traditional, homely, perhaps even slightly old-fashioned… BUT if you look properly then you’ll notice there’s something exciting happening at the same time, something creative and skilled and very interesting indeed.
I really liked it here, this hidden gem, this won’t be my only visit.