The magnificent oak doors of this 17th century Scottish country house, once owned by the Coats thread family of Paisley, open onto an impressive stone entrance hallway and reception area – but they also break the magical spell cast by an entrancing drive through the Perthshire estate’s ancient woodland.
The smell of simmering beef stock from the ground-floor kitchen hits you the minute you enter. Mind you, maybe that is no bad thing, given that we’ve travelled under the heaviest rainfall on record and can’t wait to escape to somewhere warm and dry. Nevertheless, the pervasive smell is unwelcome.
Hit and miss
Blazing wood fires in the lobby and lounge, a glossy mag and a glass of Chablis (£5.20) eventually manage to appease my nostrils. But a nagging sense of foreboding is initially confounded by reading the dinner menu from head chef Andrew Wilkie: it is modern Scottish, using many ingredients from the estate or sourced from surrounding farms, and is a clear indication that Dunkeld and Kinnaird Housetrained Wilkie aspires to more foodie awards than his current two AA rosettes.
‘Blazing wood fires in the lobby and lounge, a glossy mag and a glass of Chablis.’
However, the menu also exposes a rift between the food itself and the surroundings in which it is served. Take, for example, the slightly stale spiced almonds and black olives that are served with aperitifs from the bar; these 1970s throwbacks are a remarkable faux pas when most other upscale kitchens are putting out their own fresh homemade canapés these days.
At the table, an original French domed butter dish with glass base is plonked atop a paper doily. My fresh, tart lemon water ice is beautifully presented with a mango purée in a modern minimalist off-centre bowl between the starter and main, but my partner’s cream of celeriac and apple soup arrives in a small, oldfashioned soup bowl with straight sides and a relief pattern. These curious stylistic anomalies seem to be sending out two different messages about what Ballathie wants to be, and can only hinder any upward trajectory of Wilkie’s undoubted talent. My starter of cured foie gras with brioche is a taste sensation. Two neat discs of liver deliver a stonking flavour, hugely enhanced by a row of the dinkiest cubes of port wine jelly.
By contrast, though, my partner’s smooth chicken liver parfait with pear chutney tastes to me a little bland – though he thoroughly enjoys its subtlety of flavour. Our Cotes de Beaune Vieilles Vignes Nicolas Potel 2006 at £32.50 was perfectly light with a good acerbic bite, and reasonably priced. This went well with my main of grilled sea bass fillets. Two firm, meaty sides were simply piled over crunchy asparagus, courgette discs and a humplet of herb crushed potatoes and wilted bok choy, all encircled by tiny confit tomatoes. Absolutely spot-on for me. My partner was happy with his choice of carved loin of Cortachy lamb from nearby Kirriemuir, which was so dense it looked, like beef fillet.
A wooden platter of four Scottish cheeses – goat’s, Dunsyre blue, Mull cheddar and a brie – was impressive, while my dark chocolate mousse with marmalade was a stunning combination of both flavour and textures. Breakfast at Ballathie is also worth a mention: delightful when sampled from a table with a view over the grounds to the Tay – even in the interminable pouring rain. But the rest of this historic hotel needs a comprehensive style makeover if it wants to do Wilkie the justice he and his team deserve
Price: Four-course dinner with coffee, excluding wine: £45 per person
Three courses £41.50 per person.
Cates star rating – Three stars
Ballathie House Hotel, Kinclaven, Stanley, Perthshire PH1 4QN Tel: 01250 883268