Thursday, 4 July 2019

The Oystercatcher, Otter Ferry

Other than automatically assuming the worst about every upcoming meal, which would be a pretty miserable way to live your life even if it was possible (which it isn't), there's really nothing you can do about the power of expectation and/or anticipation to make or break a restaurant experience. This was very neatly illustrated indeed on a recent weekend trip up to Loch Fyne, where one place I was expecting one of the greatest meals of my life fell rather flat, whilst another I had essentially earmarked for nothing more elaborate than a bowl of soup and a pint to cushion the effects of the long journey north turned out to be quite wonderful.

Expectations are nobody's fault really, at least nobody's in particular. Blame, if you like, a number of gushing national reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts from trusted friends for the disappointing evening, and blame the sheer lack of coverage completely - nothing so much as a mention in a local paper since 2014 - for the surprise hit, but even if Otter Ferry had been showered with slavering reviews, chances are I'd still have been very skeptical of this unassuming lochside pub near a campsite, half an hour's drive from the nearest post office. Places like this - I'd assumed - existed just to satisfy any hikers bored of camping stove beans on toast, or give locals somewhere to head towards on dog walks, not to be a shining ambassador for Argyll seafood. And yet, take a look at this menu:

Is there anything on it you wouldn't eat? Putting aside the worrying fact they consider sweet potato not to be poison (which of course it is), this is a menu that sings - attractive, accessible, full of high-end seafood at surprisingly reasonable prices, and with the odd interesting dash of international flavour, it's the kind of thing you always hope to be handed in any given gastropub but so rarely are. I'm pretty sure I would have been very happy just picking dishes at random, but ask anyone who's ever met me what they think I might order, and they'd say the langoustine and the crab and chips. So just to prove I'm not hopelessly predictable, I ordered the langoustine, followed by the crab and chips.

These absolute beauties, four huge, healthy looking things with claws as big as some entire langoustine themselves, seductively posed over a huge chunk of buttered house bread, were an insane £10.50. Now I don't know the last time you were lucky enough even to be able to order langoustine in a restaurant, even as part of a seafood platter bulked out with horrible things like whelks, but to give you just one London Elite Bubble example, Scott's in Mayfair are currently doing them (subject to availability) at £5.50 a pop (plus £2 cover charge, naturally), and I can't imagine they're any better than these. Landed at Tarbert, the menu said, which is a town on the west of the loch - in fact, the town is so famous for them that another name for langoustine is "Tarbert prawns". I think I might like to visit Tarbert.

Other starters were also impeccable. Grilled sardines were served on more excellent house bread, and draped in a lovely salsa verde. With a delicate crunch on the skin, and the flesh inside dense and meaty and moist, this was a masterclass in sardine cooking, with that same stripped-back St. John feel to presentation.

House gravadlax - generous chunks of thick-cut salmon, in a delicate dill dressing - was similarly tasteful, and another superb advert for the area's produce. And with that, with one round of starters, the Oystercatcher had won three new fans. From here on, we could not only relax but be supremely confident that whatever followed would be as enjoyable and immaculately prepared as anything that had come before.

As indeed it was. Squid salad, the seafood gently charred and overhung with live fire smoke, lay on a bed of Thai salad, with peanuts, coriander, lime and chilli in the mix.

A Scottish classic, Cullen Skink (a seafood chowder usually made with smoked haddock) was perfectly seasoned, full of huge chunks of fish, and as comforting as a soft tartan blanket. The fact it held its searing heat for a good 15 minutes wasn't quite needed on the hottest day of the year (it was 26 degrees celsius, even this far north) but rather too hot than too cold I suppose.

Behold the crab. Crab and chips is one of those unbeatable combinations that ordinarily doesn't really need messing with - just boil it up, hand me the requisite tools and I'll be as happy as Larry. But Oystercatcher serve theirs in a wonderful chilli and ginger sauce, which somehow made the dark head meat even more rich and powerful, and leant the delicate white meat in the legs and claws a deeply addictive aromatic note. Chips were golden brown and crunchy, and perhaps would have been nicer without the skins but that's just a personal bugbear. It was still, for £15, an extravaganza of technique, generosity and superb seafood.

Probably due to seafood-induced delirium, I didn't take a photo of the desserts, but homemade rhubarb sorbet was full of flavour with a charming rustic texture, and though the treacle tart could have done with a lot more of the advertised crème Anglaise (there was barely a squiggle of it, beneath the tart itself), it still was polished off.

With a couple of drinks (you don't want to be driving around these parts with less than full control of your faculties - it's largely single-lane roads with about half as many passing places as would be comfortable) the bill came to £80 for three people, and though some of us had two starters it's still an incredibly reasonable ask for what turned out to be a near-flawless parade of exquisitely prepared and tastefully presented seafood cooking, matched by attentive service and a idyllic, almost dreamlike location. I still, over a week later, still can't believe it happened - we'd ended up here purely because it was the nearest restaurant to where we were staying that wasn't the restaurant where we were staying, and we'd hoped it would be merely passable; in the end it turned out to be good enough to warrant a trip up to Scotland all by itself. Which is just as well, considering what was coming the evening after. Watch this space.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This place looks awesome.

Was it Inver restaurant that disappointed?