“Is tha’ your wee dog there?” – a yell across the car park. It’s Pam Brunton, head chef at Inver arriving for the morning shift. “I’ve got to show her to ma’ chefs,” she says, crouching down to ruffle Tonka’s ears.
There’s a glint of Billy Connolly: the thick accent, roaring laugh and naughty twinkle in her eye – like she’s letting you in on a joke – but at barely five foot, and regimental in clean-pressed chef whites, Pam cuts a very different figure.
It’s the morning after the night before at her restaurant, on the shore of Loch Fyne. We’d trundled over The Cairngorms and through The Trossachs National Park in the van. We’d hit the West Coast and kept going until we thought it couldn’t get more remote – and just when we’d started arguing whether to turn back to the nearest town, we spotted the white washed bothy.
It’s a part of Scotland where anyone living within 45 minutes is considered a ‘neighbour’, and popping out for a paper often turns into a half-hour expedition. The much-anticipated onsite accommodation is yet to open. Instead, the restaurant website recommends a handful of B&Bs a 15-minute drive away, as well as the invitation to park up in a van for the night. So we did just that.
Inver opened back in the spring of 2015, but for all its remoteness, the strip of coast has been a centre of trading and clan politics for centuries. The restaurant looks out over the ruin of Old Castle Lachlan, which is now shrouded in ivy. It was once the headquarters of the Machlachlan clan, until the chief was killed at the Battle of Culloden (1746). It’s said that his horse swam back home across the loch, and on dark nights a lone whinny soars over the howl of the wind.
There’s a walkway round the castle which is ideal for a pre-dinner ramble. After all, it’s worth building up an appetite, because Inver isn’t your regular egg and chips kind of gaff. The joint-CV of Pam and her partner, Rob Latimer, (who doubles-up as maître d’ and head waiter) reads like a season listing of Chef’s Table, name-checking world class restaurants from Noma (Denmark) to Fäviken (Sweden).
It’s hardly unique for ambitious chefs to make a pilgrimage round Europe’s top kitchens – doing stages to glean knowledge from the best. What is more unique is what Pam and Rob did next. They resisted the lure of reliable footfall, reliable suppliers, the reliable coverage which comes with a central location. Instead of opening another “ingredient-led” joint, inspired by the seasonal produce available at New Covent Garden Market, they went off-grid.
Without the temptation of any nearby markets, foraged ingredients have been more a necessity than a leap onto a passing bandwagon. There are wild herbs: meadowsweet, camelina, woodruff, as well as pheasant black mushrooms, razor clams and seaweed fresh-picked from the thick coated shoreline. It’s modern cooking, mixed with FM McNeill’s Scotland.
‘New Nordic’ is a strong influence. The cold waters and sporadic sunshine means that the climate is more Scandinavian than continental, and the borrowed aesthetic means that Pam’s dishes are defined almost as much by what’s left off, than what’s kept on the plate. There’s a joyous absence of whisky-cream sauce, no haggis erupting from its pluck, or the butter-sodden swede which has long (mis)represented cuisine north of the border.
I first tried Pam’s food back in March at Carousel – a Marylebone-based dining room, which hosts guest chefs who are in town. The meal started with an impossibly velvety potato soup, followed by mackerel fillet which was so forensically dissected any sushi chef would be proud. The night ended with a quenelle of rhubarb sorbet floating upon a perfect cloud of hattit kit … and as we practically licked the bowl clean, we vowed to travel to Inver to experience Pam’s food again, this time ‘on location’.
You can almost chew on the briny-thick air, and the vast sky inspires a sense of awe that you just can’t summon in any West London restaurant. Rob – who worked as a graphic artist in a former life – has overseen a pared-back interior, resisting any tartan cladding or moth eaten stag head. Instead it’s white walls, Ercol chairs and the odd, understated flash of herringbone tweed. The main feature, the money-can’t-buy showstopper, is the panoramic window – where dark clouds roll past, occasionally parting just long enough for a shard of sunlight to flash across the loch.
Lunch is a la carte, and the fixed dinner menu (£46 per person) is evening-only. There’s a snug bar one end of the bothy, the dining room the other end, and a central section which is perfect for a pre-dinner drink – flooded with light, and lined with shelves which heave under the weight of cookbooks, local honey for sale, house made breads and beer.
The menu starts with raw vegetables and a dollop of salty-thick anchovy sauce. There are sugar snaps and tender stem broccoli, baby courgettes licked with char and a pair of polished radishes. It sets the tone: garden-fresh, simple flavours, care taken … the antithesis to hulking plates of fried food which taints bothies’ reputation up and down the country.
Next was a vol-au-vent filled with an orange-yolked emulsion, and then a crisp beef tendon – which had the puffiness of puri, the beefiness of dripping and the crackle of pork scratchings. Delicious, mouth-coating bites were punctuated with sharp bursts of pickled-sweet red onion and anise from wild fennel flowers. Three cheery plates to whet the appetite, before we moved through to the dining room.
With Thomas still (technically) off-booze (bad foot, don’t ask), we decided to share a drink pairing (£36). The first listed was a Palo Cortado (Equipo Navazos) – a sherry which starts life as a Fino before inexplicably killing-off the thin layer of surface-yeast and starting to oxidise and darken and become something altogether wilder and more mysterious: Amontillado on the nose with a richer Oloroso taste. A happy accident indeed. It was paired with a bowl of almonds, coco beans and chanterelles, which was flooded with a thin, dashi-style sauce, turning the mix of creamy beans, nuts and mushrooms into a steaming umami broth.
Next was squid, with a sweetcorn risotto, nasturtium flowers and slivers of white nectarine. The bursts of ripe fruit was a canny way of introducing sweetness into a savoury dish – but all together? I wasn’t sure. It made me pine for the Carousel mackerel or something simpler and more rooted in time and place. I asked Tom’s opinion, but he was too busy scraping his plate clean to answer.
Isle of Bute lamb followed, which was almost perfect – pan-fried and blush pink, with a rim of creamy fat from the grassy pastures round the Firth of Clyde. It was served with bright tomatoes, sweet-cooked shallot and samphire. In my humble opinion the ball of lamb ragout was an unnecessary addition. Alas, I’m becoming a terrible snob. There’s something indecisive about panic plating a ball of slow-cooked meat alongside a bouncy pink fillet – the savoury equivalent of a ‘trio of puddings’. Still, it was hardly a penance and the robust flavours of the slow-cooked meat went well with a Greek natural wine (Xi-Ro Jason Ligas) — which had a hint of smokiness, and a smoothness which defied my priggish preconceptions of both Greek and natural wine.
The final course was based round a rice pudding, made using camomile-infused milk. Rough-smashed raspberries exploded over the surface, amongst a layer of raspberry granita. As if the sweet scent of camomile weren’t soothing enough, a stunning pudding wine (Jour de Fruit, Monbazillac 2014) had us happily meandering back to our car park dormitory, clutching a petit four to accompany a cheeky nightcap in the van.
There’s no doubt that Inver has set the bar high for the latest wave of destination diners. As the sound of lapping waves eased us into a delightfully deep, digestive sleep, I dreamed of more roadtrips to come — camping out in other deliciously undiscovered corners of Britain. It certainly beats an Uber back home at the end of the night.
Inver Restaurant, Strathlachlan, Strachur, Argyll & Bute PA27 8BU
+44 (0)1369 860537; inverrestaurant.co.uk