Review: Ullinish Lodge -a hidden gem

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.

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Ullinish Lodge on Loch Bracadale with the Cuillins in the distance

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.

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A cosy seat by the fire (with a glass of Designated Driver’s Finest, unfortunately!)

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…

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Local oyster with cucumber noodles and verbena dry ice

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.

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My starter: ‘Roast quail breast -confit leg -button mushroom -pickled onion -raisin’

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!*

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The local sourcing detailed on the menu

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.

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My main: ‘Lochaber pork fillet – ham hock croquette – pork pie – crackling – neeps -apple sauce’

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.

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The cheese taster plate. For a cheese lover the selection wasn’t particularly groundbreaking but the frozen grapes were fun and the oatcakes were delicious (I’d have happily taken a box of them home!

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!)

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Pudding: ‘Dark chocolate – sour cherry -apple’ (even just looking at this photo is making my mouth water…)

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?

Not one.

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.

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Coffee & petit fours

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?

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The menu

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!*

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Looking from the lounge into the reception

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.

An act of kindness

As I’ve said before, I moved to Skye to find solitude but it’s been the people here that have really surprised me.
Of course, not everyone’s an angel but I’ve come across more kind and generous people here than I have anywhere else. Plus, it’s the little acts of kindness that can lift a dismal mood on a rainy day.

A couple of weeks ago I had an evening that really proved this point…

The hammer throw in the heavy events part of the Highland Games. Photo by www.skye-highland-games.co.uk

The hammer throw in the heavy events part of the Highland Games. Photo by http://www.skye-highland-games.co.uk

It was games night (the evening of celebrations after Portree Highland Games) and I was out for the evening with some new girlfriends.
After a few drinks we headed to the official after-games ceilidh party at the community centre.

The community centre is a funny place; a big village hall where all kinds of celebrations are held, from black-tie charity functions to dance music nights (mostly attended by barely-dressed youngsters doing bambi impressions in Topshop platform heels).
There’s always a school disco vibe about it. It’s a million miles from the try-hard types of venue you get in the city and I kind-of love that.

Out in the pub on games night. I'm very lucky to have found three girls who will put up with me. Sorry Toni, Lily and Phoebe for ruining the photo...

Out in the pub on games night. I’m very lucky to have found three girls who will put up with me. Sorry Toni, Lily and Phoebe for ruining the photo…

Like most Skye events, the crowd was a perfect cross-section of Skye life (old crofting boys being the exception, of course). From my lovely postmistress Kenina to the girls from downstairs at the Baking Co, there were lots of familiar faces.

Midway through the night, after much swinging and twirling on the dancefloor, I went to the bar for drinks and realised my purse was no longer in my bag.

I did a thorough check. I asked at the bar, asked at the entrance desk, asked at the food van outside and asked the policeman standing next to it. Still nothing.
Damn.
Buffered by the wine I wasn’t too upset about it but it’s always a pain to sort out new cards etc.

I’d been chatting to one of the stewards earlier, a friendly-faced man with an impressive moustache. When he saw me looking through my bag for the fifth time he asked if I was okay and I explained my predicament.
Without hesitation he pulled out his wallet and insisted on me taking a £20 note so that I could still go to the bar.

He wanted nothing in return, just for this rather tipsy, wobbly stranger to continue enjoying her evening with her friends. It was a really thoughtful thing to do.

All good nights finish too early and, with an early morning start at the forefront of my mind, I refused the offer of a few after-party drams and instead wobbled back to the hostel (my frequent home when Out On The Town).
As I went to swipe the keycard for the door I heard a car pull up behind me and a voice yell, “Hey, Katie!”

I turned round to see two policemen looking at me through the open window of a squad car.
“Here’s your purse…”
The policeman in the passenger side leaned out and chucked it to me.
Relief!
I thanked them profusely and as they began to leave one of them called back,
“We’ve been following your Twitter feed this week, we’ve really enjoyed it!”

Friendly (and social media savvy) local police

Friendly (and social media savvy) local police

That’s another thing about Skye, everybody knows your name (I suppose I’d better be good if the police here know who I am!)

But this familiarity is probably part of why people are so kind here; a proper old-fashioned community spirit.
The lack of anonymity here does take a bit of getting used to (I think that’s definitely a post for another day) but it’s worth it when you know that there are always people here who can look out for you.

*****

Thank you Lynne & Simon! x

Treats and a cup of tea cheered up many rainy days!

Whilst on the subject of acts of kindness I’d like to say a huge thank you to Lynne & Simon for my ‘Emergency Yummy Bag’…

For those of you who won’t know, L&S were the first people on Skye to introduce themselves to me after reading this blog. They’re regular faces at the Skye Baking Co and they also live in the Trotternish part of the island (I often drive past them walking or jogging around the Quiraing which totally puts me to shame!)
It was about a week after the whale rescue and I was feeling drained and poorly when they dropped this lovely little bag of chocolate goodies into the gallery for me. It was totally out of the blue and was such a kind thought that it was kind of overwhelming.

Yet another example of the kindness of people on Skye. So, if you’re reading this, Lynne & Simon, thank you!