Inver at Strachur: ‘In a burger-obsessed west of Scotland, Inver is the ultimate outlier.’ Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
The drive to this unusual restaurant, open only a few weeks, is enough to make this Scottish exile weep into her hip flask. The sweeping handsomeness of the crags, furred with pines; the road that winds around glittering pewter loch after loch. Dorothy, we’re not in Hyndland any more.
Strachur, a village clinging to the banks of Loch Fyne, is the address. But on we travel, past the village, the road punctuated only by the occasional tiny, whitewashed chapel or lonely cottage. (I’m ignoring the one with the “Boden Party Here Today” sign outside, because that’s puncturing my romantic Caledonian reverie.) This is where a duo schooled at De Superette in Ghent, Belgium, and with stints at Noma and Fäviken, have decided to open their first restaurant. Are they quite mad?
But, oh, the heartstopping view. Then the fattest loch crab claws, rammed with sweet meat and served with Inver’s own-cultured butter, crunchy with salt crystals, their own sourdough bread and a G&T made with their own tonic cordial. (Are you getting a theme here?) This is why chef Pam Brunton and front-of-house partner Rob Latimer wanted to set up shop here. Now it makes sense.
We’re eating these in the woodsmoke-fragranced bar of a restored croft, all gewgaws and odd ratty taxidermy. The stripped-back main dining room, furnished simply with tweed, animal skulls and vaguely 20th-century modern furniture, leaves the view to do the job. I’m with a pal who’d been here during the place’s days as Inver Cottage; anyone expecting the former incumbent’s repertoire of salmon platters or a nice prawn ciabatta – like the three women behind us, gingerly nibbling at their food with mouths like cats’ arses – is likely to have their world well and truly rocked.
It has become a cliche to describe modern cooking as being “new Nordic”, but I’m going for it because it holds absolutely true here: where better to absorb its tenets than Scotland’s Highlands and Islands? The Glasgow-based pal says, “This is the best food I’ve eaten on the west coast in, well, for ever.” From twig-like sheep’s cheese straws, just fleetingly squidgy inside and with a herb-strewn pool of creamed cheese, to panna cotta scented with gorse “gathered down by the abandoned naval base” and served with crisp tuile and coconut sorbet, everything we eat is eye-opening, enlivening, as bracing as a dip in the loch.
As is the fashionable way, some dishes are served by waitstaff, some by chefs. Crockery is austere stoneware, the better to showcase the beauty of what’s on it: vivid green asparagus mousse, smooth and silken as balm, topped with mandolined sections of the raw vegetable for crunch and hiding wee gifts of sharp crowdie cheese. Or what Rob wryly says is “our take on fish and chips”: cured halibut from Gigha, folds of impeccable fish topped with spaghetti-strands of pickled raw potato and flanked with pungent horseradish cream. The whiteness of this plateful suggests blandness, but each mouthful delivers textural contrast and a jolt of pleasure: the sting of the horseradish, the piquancy of the potato, the suavity of the fish.
The showstopper is Bute lamb with toasted caraway seeds and fennel pureed, and raw, and charred. Three cuts of the lamb, the shoulder slow-cooked and almost “pulled”, the others pink and pristine: the loin is like a meaty bonbon, and the whole thing as if the animal had romped and rolled through a fennel field, coming away kissed with anise. Glorious.
Raising the baa: Inver’s showstopping Bute lamb with fennel three ways. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
But I worry about Rob and Pam and Inver. I worry there’ll be too many of the cats’ arse women and not enough punters who get it. Rob tells us that people had walked out the previous evening because they don’t do steak. I dream that it’ll be like Daniel Berlin’s place deep in rural, middle-of-nowhere south Sweden, where people travel the length of the country to eat his thoughtful, exquisite cooking. But in a burger-obsessed west of Scotland, Inver is the ultimate outlier.
So go. Go by car or boat or bloody helicopter. Go eat oxtail and bone marrow bridies with HP at the bar. Or blood buns, shiny and purple, stuffed with sweet, white crabmeat and bristling with tiny, fragrant leaves. Because Inver is a find. And not just a Loch Fyne find, either. It’s a find by anybody’s standards, anywhere.
• Inver, Strathlachlan, Strachur, Argyll and Bute, Scotland, 01369 860537. Open lunch, Weds-Sun, noon-2.30pm; dinner, Thurs-Sat, 6.30-8.30pm. About £28 a head for three courses; set dinner £35 for four courses.
Atmosphere inside: 7/10; outside 10/10
Value for money 9/10