Inver

Strathlachlan, Strachur, Argyll

01369 860 537

Loading article content

Lunch/dinner: £25-£46

Food rating: 10/10

YOU have to love what Pamela Brunton is doing at Inver even before you taste a scrap of her food. She lures you to the less-trodden reaches of Loch Fyne, a location of breathtaking natural beauty. From the restaurant you look out over a stony foreshore and the loch to the romantically ruined Castle Lachlan in the middle distance. An easy amble takes you to what’s left of the medieval Kilmorie Chapel where you’ll find the mossy headstones of the Maclachlan clan chiefs, including their 24th Chief, the magnificently named Marjorie Maclachlan of Maclachlan. It’s a stunning spot, and we arrive just as a line of geese fly gracefully over the water. The air reeks of seaweed, briny waters, the grassy dampness of the gentle west coast, delivering a restorative dose of what the French call "thalassothérapie" (seawater treatment). My urban lungs inhale it greedily.

The cost for such unique cultural and natural heritage is often steep in the Highlands, a price tag padded out with plush tartan carpets and post-prandial malts that’s only easily absorbed by the exclusive platinum tourist market. But not at Inver. The food is ultra-special, yet it’ll cost you no more than a mid-market restaurant anywhere.

Chef-proprietor Brunton is as small and as fine-boned as a china doll but she totes a rock-solid CV, including stints at revered, trend-setting establishments: Noma in Copenhagen, Faviken in Jarpen (Sweden), Tom Aikens in London, and In De Wulf in Ghent. So Inver bears the imprimatur of the "new Nordic" and Low Countries’ food movement – seasonal, geographically appropriate, explorative, sustainable. Time-honoured skills underpin Inver – the craft of sourdough bread-making, fermentation, foraging, exploration of ancient grains, so we nibble on fermented carrots glistening with carrot oil and crumbly, piquant beremeal biscuits that are pungent with aged, mature ewe’s cheese.

Brunton doesn’t need to stamp her ego on everything; some ingredients get to speak for themselves. Plump langoustines from the loch (it’s worth persevering for the ample claw meat), Otterferry oysters, they need no embellishment, but no-one should miss her chewy-crusted sour bread and salty cultured butter. Typically dishes at Inver come in a veil of greens grown at Stachur: claytonia, sorrel, mibuna, viola, burnet, nastursium, watercress, tatsoi; pickings from salad leaves that are flowering; vegetables that are sprouting.

"Burnt grain dumplings" showcase the adventurousness of Brunton’s cooking. Charcoal-grey, shaped like gnocchi, their tangy, mineral, toasty character is as strong and deep as stout. Griddled purple sprouting broccoli, flakes of mature sheep’s milk cheese, soaked golden raisins, and a profusion of local herbs so fresh that they might just be picked, temper the grain’s intensity.

I wonder if Brunton has brined the lamb that’s been reared on Bute; at any rate, it’s glorious. Here again is that appetite-stimulation juxtaposition: the umami-rich meat sitting cheek by jowl with layers of darkly singed springtime onions, tiny broccoli flowers, and precious new-season broad beans. Each dish shows an inherent balance that’s positively Japanese.

Blistering hot, the rhubarb jam soufflé is more than palatable when it cools just a little but it’s eclipsed by the sorrel sorbet, which is like diving into an cool lake of refreshing liquid greenness. Dinky doughnuts flecked with black pepper and flanked with throat-tickling wild pepper ice cream exploit the under-used florality and fruitiness of wild peppercorns. Salty caramel and Calvados sauce, made by rendering beef marrow rather than butter, shows how Brunton’s radical creativity is harnessed by her sophisticated grasp of flavour pathways. The rounded, haunting bone marrow taste is glorious.

The restaurant space at Inver is cleanly modest, in a fashionably airy, almost scrubbed and Lutheran, Babette’s Feast way that draws in the light, space and peacefulness from outside. Music is vinyl; a talking novella – Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men – plays in the lavatories. Inver is a resolutely analogue experience. As you walk in, you’ll see Brunton’s extensive classic cookbook collection. For diversion, you can leaf through a dog-eared pamphlet – Are You Being Poisoned? – written by a doctor about the state of food in the 1950s. Ironically, we’re still struggling with the problems he outlined, but there’s a progressive movement taking us in a better direction, and Inver is part of it.