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Hotel review: Ness Walk, Inverness

With food this creative, rosettes or bibs should be beckoning, writes Peter Ranscombe.

It’s the wee things that make a big difference: being offered a cup of tea – or a glass of Champagne – on arrival; being offered a choice of Scottish craft beers on draught – not just a token bottle hidden in the fridge – at the bar; being offered an extra sausage on your cooked breakfast if you’re a fussy Teuchter and don’t want an egg… without even having to suggest it yourself.

Ness Walk, Inverness’s five-star hotel on the banks of the river, does all those wee things extremely well. Yet it also does the big things well too.

Big like the views from the floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows. Big like the beds in the “Laurel” bedrooms upstairs. And big like the baths and separate walk-in showers, either side of the their-and-their sinks, complete with Arran Aromatics products.

Kingsmills Hotel Group began its £7 million refurbishment of the former Maple Court Hotel in 2018, and opened the 47-bedroom Ness Walk the following year. Adding a modern glass and steel structure next to the original blonde sandstone building created a three-sided courtyard that faces the River Ness.

Even on a dreich day, the hotel’s grounds were inviting, and it’s easy to picture guests sitting out on the veranda or sniffing the herbs in the borders. Staying indoors brought its benefits, mind.

Finger sandwiches will never be the same again

Afternoon tea in the hotel’s 80-seat Torrish restaurant hinted at the creativeness that was to come that evening. It opened with a trio of finger sandwiches: peppery gravlax with pickled dulse seaweed; crisp yet forgettable pickled cucumber; and a creative take on coronation chicken, with apricot and mustard.

The rest of the savoury layer stole the show; a coarse and textured homemade pork pie was served warm, with an added kick of heat from the mustard in its piccalilli, while the simple nomenclature of “garlic shrimp” on the menu didn’t do justice to a brioche bun packed tight with prawns that came both sweet with garlic yet tangy with a pinch of cayenne pepper – really imaginative and a memorable highlight.

Scones are the yardstick by which an afternoon tea must be measured, and Ness Walk’s didn’t disappoint. What they lacked in stature they made up for in flavour, pairing a light and fluffy buttermilk mini-scone with a subtle lavender and strawberry mini-scone.

It was always going to be tough for the sweet layer to live up to the high standard set by its savoury and scone predecessors, but the head-turning matcha fancier gave it its best shot. The earthy matcha flavour was carried by a close-crumbed outer layer with an almost bread-like consistency, which gave way to a softer centre.

Washing the matcha down with a bright and lively earl grey tea reset the palate for: a white chocolate, pistachio, and raspberry gateaux that was slightly stodgy; a sharp strawberry and vibrant elderflower tart that perhaps needed something noticeably sweeter for balance; and a peach and black sesame sable that was dominated by the maltiness of its biscuit. 

 

Finding the city’s missing link

After such an innovative afternoon tea, I was chomping at the bit to see what would be served in Torrish that evening. Sipping a pint of Cromarty Brewing’s Happy Chappy at the bar before dinner, my excitement reached fever point as the menu was handed to me, complete with a map displaying the names and locations of the restaurant’s suppliers.

A wine list full of supplier Corney & Barrow classics – from Delamotte and Guy de Chassey Champagnes through to Domaine Vincent Dampt Chablis and Eradus Pinot Noir – provided plenty of distractions too. Look out for the Gusbourne English sparkling wines and The Lane range from the Adelaide Hills down under, plus an amusing section on wines made by golfers.

Having bought the Highland capital’s Kingsmills Hotel back in 2007 and moved it decidedly upmarket, Tony Story created Ness Walk because he felt Inverness had been lacking a five-star option. Given the quality of the food in the hotel’s restaurant, I think rosettes or even bibs should be beckoning.

A pair of impressive canapes served at the table set the tone for the meal. A smoked salmon croque monsieur layered with bright orange roe took me on a journey of textures and tastes – from sweet cream cheese to salty roe, from crisp toast to oily butter – while a double cheese pot was sweet, gooey, sticky, and salty, and displayed the judicious use of truffle, which was balanced instead of overpowering.

“Balance” was also the byword for a starter of Petley Farm pork croquette, with a cider glazed pork cheek accompanying the ham croquette. Aromas of vinegar and a touch of curry powder on the nose were enticing, but again it was the textures that shone through – the crispness of the croquette’s breadcrumbs, the melting softness of the pork cheek, the fresh crunch of the thin slices of apple dotted around the plate.

There’s always a pork dish – and I always succumb. This time, I’m glad I did.

 

Getting the classics right too

The only duff note during entire dinner was an intermezzo of mackerel served with strawberry and foie gras – and, no, it wasn’t the strawberry that spoiled the dish. In fact, the combination of salty mackerel and fresh strawberry was both fascinating and inspired, with the strawberry losing its fruitiness but retaining enough acidity to cut through the oily fish.

Instead, it was the foie gras that spoiled the dish – its greasiness was unnecessary against the oiliness of the fish. And do we really need foie gras in the 21st century anyway?

Yet an unsuccessful amuse-bouche in no way detracted from the overall quality of the meal. The menu displayed a praiseworthy and necessary level of ambition that cements the Torrish’s position among the restaurants-to-watch in the Highlands.

Catering for wealthy tourists in the summer and discerning locals in the winter means Ness Walk also needs to get the classics right – like the 48-hour cooked shin of Highland beef, with grilled rump cap, corn, chanterelles, and charred onion – and it ticks that box too. The beef dish tasted like a nuanced barbecue, with a real depth of flavour to the shin, smoky – almost too smoky – notes from the onions, and salty – almost too salty – flavours from the rump.

A chocolate mousse sat on a crunchy peanut based and encased in a soft Italian meringue was among the eye-catching desserts. While the nuts were too dominant for me, the execution of the dish was excellent.

Ness Walk may do both the wee things and the big things equally well. But it’s the ambition and creativity demonstrated in the kitchen that’s going to make me go back again.

Find out more about Ness Walk at https://www.nesswalk.com/ 

Read more on Scottish Field’s Travel pages. 

Plus, don’t miss the October issue of Scottish Field magazine.

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