Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bob Bob Ricard

1 Upper James St

My lovely (and very generous) friend C took me out for a birthday dinner at Bob Bob Ricard, which is the perfect place to snuggle into a booth with someone you really like hanging out with - the drinks, food and luxurious coziness of the whole place makes it one of my favorite meals in recent memory. The "Push for champagne" button at each table sets the tone for the whole place - whatever you want, whenever you want it, delivered with charm! Due to the multiple drinks and courses, my memory is not the clearest, but I definitely remember having the truffled potato and porcini vareniki pictured above, each topped with a tiny onion ring. For mains we tore apart an Old Bay Crispy Chicken, which made good use of one of my favorite seasonings and paired it with the tenderness of a baby chicken. There was also a Veal Fillet Holstein, which was essentially a schnitzel topped with a tiny fried quail's egg and sitting in an incredible sauce. A shoutout to the truffled mashed potato as well, which we polished off easily, before moving on to the weirdest dessert order ever - macaroni and cheese (don't look at us that way!) and the BBR Signature Chocolate Glory, which had a beautiful dome of gilded chocolate that was then melted by the hot chocolate sauce the waiter poured over it. And of course, being extra thoughtful, my friend had also arranged for a specially decorated mini-birthday cake to appear. I am now slightly embarrassed as I read through everything we ate (and I've missed off some other bits too) - but anyone that knows me knows that feeding me is the best way to celebrate, and this is a meal I'll remember for ages.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Scotland Day 8 & 9 - RAIN, RAIN and MORE RAIN (and Edinburgh)

Here we come to our final day of vacation (I'm not really counting the last half day we had in Edinburgh before catching the train back to London). Thankfully the prior days were more gracious, weather-wise, as this day managed to depress us all slightly with its dreariness.

The drive from Dunkeld to St. Andrews was a steady slate-gray view, and I did experience some reluctance to get out of the car once we were parked. Our umbrellas struggled with the rain and wind as we walked to St. Andrews Cathedral, which is unfortunately a ruin with no sheltered spaces, as you can see below.

A photo cannot capture the misery of this day
A and C were so fed up with trying to keep their umbrellas from blowing inside out that they headed immediately for a cafe. My parents and I attempted to take some pictures at the cathedral and then at St. Andrews Castle, but we ended up crying uncle as well and soon all of us were in the cafe, trying to get warm again.

While St. Andrews was a bit of a disaster (though I'm sure it has many redeeming qualities when you aren't being soaked), we were looking forward to Anstruther, home to some very famous fish and chips.

I found chips at a fish and chip shop that I actually like!
Anstruther Fish Bar was noted on our itinerary as being the best fish and chips in the UK. I was a bit dubious about this as my experience with chippies has not been that extraordinary, but it seemed worth a stop just to check. An order of traditional battered cod and then some haddock in breadcrumbs arrived quite quickly - they were happy for the five of us to share and brought us extra plates to make it easier. Surprisingly, I loved the traditional batter more than the breadcrumbs - it was light and greaseless, and the chips were fried so well that they were actually crisp on the outside and full of potato-ey flavor on the inside.

Our next destination was Dunfermline Abbey, but A the politics geek noticed that Kirkcaldy, Gordon Brown's patch, was on the way, so he insisted that we drive through it. All I can say is that I don't recommend this journey to anyone else. Perhaps the route we took through Kirkcaldy was particularly industrial, but as far as I could tell there was nothing to see.

Again, the rain scuppered most of our hopes of touring Dunfermline - we basically went into the Abbey, took some pictures, and then decided to head off to Edinburgh to make sure we could return the rental car before closing time.

At least we are somewhere dry
After dropping off the parents and the luggage at Abcorn Guest House, A and I had a traffic-jam-filled journey to the rental car drop off, then took a train back into the center of town. By the time we got back to the B&B, my parents were heading out for a walk, so we decided to grab C and head to a local pub with a great whisky list. Leslie's Bar was just around the corner from where we were staying, which made it a perfect place to hide from the rain. It was lovely and cozy inside, with wooden panelling and red velvet upholstery everywhere, and A was delighted by his whisky options.

My parents were pretty excited about more Chinese food, and the street that Leslie's Bar was on happened to be home to Huaxing Chinese Supermarket, as well as two Chinese restaurants. After grabbing some snacks at the market, we chose Good Year for a celebratory last meal. The salt and pepper chicken wings that came as our starter were enormous, meaty, crispy and spicy and boded well for the rest of the meal. As dishes poured out of the kitchen, my parents were absolutely delighted - there was no way we could finish that meal but we did give it a valiant try, and they kindly boxed up the leftovers so my parents could enjoy a second dinner the next night. Another big bonus point - the restaurant is BYOB and doesn't charge corkage, and there is a wine shop just a few doors down called Vino where we picked out a great Riesling and Rioja.

Holy cow, Chinese feast

We waddled back to the B&B for a good night's sleep, and when we woke up we had our last full breakfast (sadly the least appetizing of them all, though that was partially because it was the eighth full breakfast we'd had). A wander around drizzly Edinburgh found us looking at the Olympic rings and the National Gallery of Scotland to duck away from the wetness. Luckily all of us like the Impressionist painters so we spent a bit of time in there, before trodding around in the drizzle a bit more. Our taxi driver had pointed out the Elephant House cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote her Harry Potter books so we popped in there for a coffee break as well. And then, it was time to leave...

Doesn't this make you excited for the Olympics?
Goodbye Scotland. It was good knowing you. You may be grey, wizened and a bit damp, but your redeeming qualities are many as well. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Scotland Day 7 - The Tallest Tree in Britain, More Ospreys, Police, Howie's Bistro

We woke up to a grey and drizzly morning in Dunkeld. After another hearty breakfast, we decided to go for a walk before the rain got any heavier, so we headed off to the Hermitage. Thankfully, the thick covering of trees meant that very little rain actually landed on us, and as we walked past a bubbling stream and some mini-waterfalls, we came across what was listed as the tallest tree in Britain.
Is this really the tallest tree in Britain?
More interestingly, I read later at Dunkeld Cathedral that the reason why this area is covered in Douglas firs is that one of the previous Dukes of Atholl decided to put seeds into cannons and blasted the surrounding area with them. So now, hundreds of years later, there are incredibly tall fir trees all over the place.

After our walk we went to Dunkeld Cathedral which was pretty, and more importantly, dry inside. The rain was really getting heavy at this point so after our very thorough inspection of the cathedral (and an eclectic antiques store nearby), we went back to the B&B for a little snack consisting of some Scottish cheese and crackers we picked up at The Scottish Deli

A and his mom were feeling a little under the weather so we left them to rest at the B&B and headed out to Loch of the Lowes. While checking out the hides on the loch, where you can watch birds and wildlife from the comfort of a shelter, we bumped into loads of friendly birdwatchers who were very helpful at directing us where to look to see all the interesting sights. There are ospreys there, too, and I actually saw this osprey swoop into the water, catch a massive fish (which you can see on the right side of the photo) and drag it up to the top of a very tall tree where her nest is. She's the oldest breeding osprey they know of - apparently almost three times as old as your average osprey.
This osprey will mess you up.
After that, we found a trail that headed toward Dunkeld and went for a wander.
Picturesque moss.
The wander found us going down a rather steep hill all the way into Dunkeld, and we popped out right in from the The Scottish Deli again. What goes down must come up(!) so we trekked back up like the valiant hill walkers we are, and were very proud of ourselves when we made it back to Loch of the Lowes.

By this point it was dinner time again, and Kate, the owner of the B&B, had recommended Howie's Bistro to us. We arrived and proceeded to have one of the best meals of our Scottish trip. A and my dad ordered the Perthshire spring lamb, redcurrant & leek casserole, and the noises my dad made while eating this indicated that he was not going to share. I had Howie’s own lasagne with potato wedges & dressed salad, which was rich and warming and perfect for the chilly, wet weather. Shockingly, my mom's dish, which sounded boring: Leek, mushroom & pannchetta penne pasta topped with a garlic butterflied chicken breast, was anything but - I basically licked her bowl clean when she couldn't finish it, since the mushroom flavor was so intense and creamy. And A's mom's pan seared sea bass had a crisp, savory skin and was cooked just right.
Lasagne (but the chips let you know you're still in the UK)
We shared the lime cheesecake with chocolate ice cream for dessert, which made the cheesecake lovers and chocolate lovers all very happy. When we got back to the B&B, we found out that Howie's Bistro is owned by Kate's two sons - so thankfully we really enjoyed our meal or else that could have been an awkward situation...
Anyway - Dunkeld is a small place, so I was surprised to find such a great place for dinner, but that seemed to be the trend in Scotland, finding really outstanding food in out of the way places.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Scotland Day 6 - Castle, Whisky, Gorge, Waterfalls, Loch Tay

We were sad to leave the Boat Hotel, but at least the drive through the rest of the Cairngorms was picturesque enough to alleviate some of the pain. Our first destination was Blair Castle, which is a giant white washed castle with some pretty amazing grounds. We were still fondly remembering Eilean Donan though so instead of going inside this castle, we just got tickets for the gardens and had a stroll around. This worked out well, especially when we came across these:
Highland cow! The best part about Blair Castle.
That's my favorite picture, but there were actually 5 or 6 of the cows scattered around. They are as adorable as can be, with their shaggy bangs and dopey personalities. The walled garden was worth a look as well, except for the vicious swans standing guard over their babies (I stayed far far away).

Another brief stop was made at Killiecrankie Gorge as it was on our way to Edradour. We didn't spend a lot of time there, but did walk down to get a view of Soldier's Leap, where the story has it a solder jumped across the River Garry while being pursued.

A was clearly distracted by the thought of whisky though so he hurried us along to "Scotland's smallest distillery" which turned out to be informative and charming (though it didn't change my mind about how foul the actual drink is).
This is worth a lot of money. Don't ask me why.
Wee car!
After a tour and tasting (and a souvenir whisky glass each) we went to Pitlochry to have a look around. I'd heard a lot about the fish ladder from the guidebook, so we set off on foot to find it. But before we got there, we met this guy and his dogs:
He pointed us in the right direction and so we managed to find it, but didn't see any salmon swimming upstream (though others claimed they had seen some large ones just a little before we got there). Pitlochry's main street was attractive and lined with shops selling tourist stuff. But soon our parking time was up, and we decided to go to the Falls of Acharn for a walk before dinner. It's a lovely, one hour circular walk (but be warned, it is quite steep uphill for half of it). The best place to get a view of the waterfall is actually through the Hermit's Cave (so don't just poke your head in and then walk past it like I did).
Waterfalls are always better in real life
Acharn is conveniently located next to Kenmore, a beautiful village on Loch Tay. A had gotten a recommendation for the Kenmore Hotel (and our tour arranger Nigel also mentioned that it's one of his favorite places) so we decided to have dinner there. You can see from the picture below how lovely it would be to have a drink in the sun. Unfortunately for us, it wasn't really sunny so after a quick huddle outside with some drinks, we headed into the much cozier pub area for dinner.
This picture makes the weather look better than it was
I ordered a burger and A had fish and chips, and he definitely fared better than me, so it was a good thing we were sharing! My dad and A's mom had mussels which they both really enjoyed again, and my mom had a bowl of cullen skink, which is basically a very rich seafood chowder.
Burger not worth speaking of
Thank goodness for fish and chips
I believe there was another sticky toffee pudding for dessert here, which was delightfully nut-free, making it perfect for me. I clearly needed a walk after all that food, so my parents and I headed off for a small jaunt on the banks of Loch Tay.
Spot the crannog
As we piled into the car and drove away from Kenmore, the sun broke through the clouds, which almost made us turn back around to see Loch Tay in the dazzling sunshine, but alas, I knew we had some miles to go before we reached Hatton Grange B&B so we continued on, wishing our timing was slightly better.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Scotland Day 5 - Cairngorms

Out of the places we stayed, The Boat Hotel was my favorite. The dark wood-paneled bar with big squashy sofas was a delightful place to have a glass of wine (or a whisky) after dinner, and it was ideally located for walking and taking a trip on a steam railway. The breakfasts were also top notch - we tried Arbroath smokies and Scottish smoked salmon, and you could order warm croissants.

In the morning we walked to Loch Garten and the osprey centre (ospreys disappeared from Scotland for a while but when they returned, the first pair were spotted here).

Alone, again

Then we hopped on the Strathspey Steam Railway for a very slow but peaceful journey.

Choo choo!

In the afternoon, A and his mom dashed off to Glenfarclas for another whisky distillery tour, while my parents and I did almost all of the walks on this map. We saw a hell of a lot of sheep, and one bunny.

One of what seemed like a million sheep

All that hiking (or in A's case, drinking) meant that we were up for a hearty dinner. We were looking for something a little less fancy that our previous dinners, and The Craig Bar (Woodside Avenue Grantown-on-Spey, Highland PH26 3JN) seemed like just the right thing. What really sealed the deal was the note on their website that while they served pies of all ilks, they were also happy for people to bring in food from the local Chinese takeaway. They even give you plates and cutlery for it so you can dine in style! My parents are very easy to accommodate, but they really miss Chinese food after a few days, so this seemed perfect. They would go order Chinese, while A, A's mom and me would have pies and chips. And so it was.

Mmm, pie.

Side note - the Chinese takeaway, Chinatown (47 High Street, Grantown-On-Spey PH26) was actually good - Yangzhou fried rice, chow mein, and roast duck were prepared quickly and made my parents go completely silent as they ate (seeing my dad clear two enormous plates made me realise how much they were craving Chinese food).

Again, everyone was so full after dinner that we stopped in Nethy Bridge for a little walk (and to see the bridge for which it is named). 

A Thomas Telford bridge (which was exciting until we saw them everywhere)
And another evening was capped off in the bar of The Boat Hotel.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Scotland Day 4 - Castles, Loch Ness, Cairngorms

Another outrageously large breakfast at Fernlea greeted us in the morning, along with blue skies!
The view from our bedroom window at Fernlea
 We got an early start and stopped in Plockton, which rather unusually has a lot of palm trees in people's gardens. A's mom had been here years ago and her fond memories were reinforced by our stroll around the village, including a stop at the open air church which is now completely overgrown but you could still pick out where people might have sat to listen to a sermon.
Next was Eilean Donan castle which is indeed as picturesque as all the guide books would make you believe. In between our photo frenzies, we also enjoyed the exhibits inside (I especially liked the very realistic fake food in the kitchen, along with explanations of what the life of a scullery maid was like).
Eilean Donan Castle - just helping to make it the most photographed castle in Scotland
Sadly for Urquhart Castle, we were too impressed with Eilean Donan to care very much about ruins, so we stopped in the car park for a look and then decided to head off to see Loch Ness, up close and personal, instead.
Sneaky picture of Urquhart Castle from over the wall
We paused in Drumnadrochit to ask the tourist information people where we should go for a short walk, and they suggested the Woodland Walk that goes very close to Loch Ness. Of course, while we were on the walk, we bumped into a a guy and his dog and asked whether it was possible to actually get to Loch Ness, and he gave us a tip that involved a bit of scrambling over a fallen tree (and a tense moment when A thought he might cause my mom to fall into the creek!) but aside from that obstacle, it wasn't much farther to Loch Ness itself, and we found ourselves on the banks, completely alone. I love it when that happens. On our way back we got lost, of course, since none of us are very good at finding trails / remembering where we came from, but we did find our way back to the car eventually.

Woodland walk
Now this is where A was really looking forward to trying to ridiculously long whisky list at the Fiddlers, going so far as to call the day before to check when they served food. So when they said 12-2.30 and 6.30-8.30, we knew we wouldn't get any food, but we failed to realise that they aren't open at all in the afternoon! A was devastated, and the day was only saved when our next destination turned out to be so amazing that no one could ever be depressed there.
The Dores Inn - this could be heaven
A's uncle R had recommended The Dores Inn (Loch Ness, IV2 6TR) and we are so glad we made the effort to go.
Silvery sardines
Lamb and pancetta cassoulet
We ordered what seems like the majority of the menu and every single dish was really well prepared. We started with sardines, stuffed mushrooms, and mussels - and as soon as we started eating, we were getting excited for the mains. I had the lamb and pancetta cassoulet, and in a recurring theme, despite my parents saying that they don't like lamb, they tried it and changed their minds. It was meltingly tender and jam-packed with different flavors. A's haggis was scarfed down, as was his mom's fish and chips (again, enormous, and fried just right).  My dad's sea bass and mom's scallops and chorizo salad went quickly as well - we basically ate and grinned at each other happily through dinner. A warm bourbon mud cake to finish was the final achievement, and we joked around about coming back the next night even though we were not going to be anywhere close.

Reluctantly, we left The Dores Inn to head to The Boat Hotel in the Cairngorms - and once I saw the old fashioned bar I was thrilled - more about it in the next installment.