Knock Castle Hotel & Spa isn’t just a place to lay your head – albeit in some luxury, but it’s also an award-winning restaurant in its own right – and you don’t have to be staying here to enjoy it.
I reviewed the hotel in February 2019 Crieff: Knock Castle Hotel & Spa. Living like a king – for a day! and was so impressed with the food provided that I’ve decided to review the restaurant as a separate entity. Why, I hear you ask, well that’s simply because it deserves it.
The kitchen brigade is run by the hotels chef-patron Jason Henderson, who, rather amazingly, not only is the head chef, but also the man behind the overall control of the hotel, ably assisted by his right-hand man, general manager, Malcolm Copland.
It’s a quite remarkable achievement. Running a kitchen is in itself a full-time job, never mind adding in the complexities of a hotel to the mix, but Jason not only manages but makes it look effortless too.
As restaurants go, this one is something very special indeed. The Rooftop as it’s known is aptly named being located on the top floor of the hotel. Surrounded by glass which overlooks the Strathearn Valley far below, it’s like being on top of the world. I’ve been lucky and have eaten in many restaurants around the world – some good, some awful – but none can compare with the breathtaking views from the Rooftop, and it can easily hold its own with some of the Michelin quality establishments I’ve trudged through!
The dining room is an open-plan area primarily consisting of a mix of window tables with an assortment of larger ones centrally situated. There’s also an alcove area which can seat six in a little more privacy.
The Rooftop Restaurant displays a predominantly Scottish theme with its tartan flooring and matching curtains, all complemented with an overall purple colour scheme. I suspect the designer had one eye on the Scottish thistle when planning the restaurant’s colour palette.
There’s also an outdoor patio area complete with heaters because in Highland Perthshire its winter for six months of the year! This area also doubles up as a smokers location. At the time of my visit, the inter-connecting door from the dining room was locked and smokers had to use a secondary entrance located off the bar. This ensured that no smoke could enter the dining room which is as it should be but also caters for everyone’s needs.
As you reach the restaurant via either the lift or stairs you’ll enter into a bar and waiting area. This is where you’ll be seated before entering the restaurant. We were met by David, a larger than life character who exudes an air of being in complete control of his dining room. He’s very professional in manner, yet still engaged with his customers displaying a warm and friendly approach.
David will present you with the menus and take a drinks order before allowing you an opportunity to peruse these at leisure. He will also take the time to explain the menu options at this point. There are three menus in operation: Degustation – a seven-course tasting style menu priced at £69.95; an à la carte menu with individual prices and a bar meal menu favouring lighter bites, burgers, specialised sandwiches etc.
But this is where it gets interesting, and, in my view shows just how much of a customer-led business this is. Basically, if you choose the degustation option and want to replace a course or even an element of the dish you don’t care for, then ask. I don’t think I have ever eaten with such flexibility before. Most head chefs would almost throw you out for having the temerity of even considering asking to change a dish!
This is the benefit of a kitchen that does not pre-prepare their food, which is all cooked to order. So, on that basis please do not expect to order and have your food delivered immediately. If that’s the type of service you’re looking for, I suggest you head back to McDonald’s.
Once your starter is underway you’ll be shown to your table. And one of the first things I check for is a pet hate. In my humble opinion, there is no excuse for a good quality restaurant using anything other than a crisp linen napkin – The Rooftop didn’t disappoint in this regard. We’re off to a flying start folks! We were just seated when a waitress arrived with a slate containing a selection of home-made bread and a selection of butter. Our choice was a white tiger bread along with an apple and beetroot version. You know they are home-made as they’re just so different from anything you can buy in a supermarket. Fresh and soft, a lovely well-cooked crust providing a change in both texture and taste, these are almost artisan-like in their creation. Married to the paprika and honey, chive and plain butter, they were sublime.
And so to the food. I opted for the degustation menu of which the first course was hand-dived west coast scallops on a bed of white chocolate and herb risotto with a vanilla sabayon. Delivered in a half scallop shell, the two good-sized seafood nuggets sat proudly atop the bed of risotto, each drizzled with the sabayon.
Let’s get something out of the way immediately. Yes, white chocolate and a vanilla sabayon would normally be found on a dessert menu, but bear with me on this point as we move on.
The scallops had been parted from their coral, which I enjoy, but that said, I appreciate roe is a bit of an acquired taste. My scallops were cooked to perfection. Soft and tender with a hint of colour where they’d kissed the pan, meant they’d retained that succulent sweetness associated with scallops. It was a melt-in-the-mouth moment cutting into them for the first bite and savouring the freshness of the sea. The vanilla sabayon is a genius move, adding a little bit of extra sweetness, but with a different type of flavour which just works. The risotto, which I find is so often overcooked by restaurants, was just right and well seasoned. A tiny bite left in the arborio rice which hadn’t been overly flavoured by the cooking stock was finished with white chocolate and a delicate dressing of pea shoots which effectively married the whole dish together in flavour and looks. This was an example of a symbiotic relationship of ingredients and impeccable cooking skills culminating in an accomplished dish.
The next course listed on the menu was a pate of duck liver with a chilli and mango salsa. To be honest, I can get pate in most places, but what had caught my eye was the smoked breast of local pigeon with sweet potato fondant, wild mushroom and blueberry fricassee on the à la carte menu. Again, there’s just an attention to detail in the presentation that was showing through as this dish arrived at the table. The two pigeon breasts sat on the fricassee surrounded by a stock reduction jus.
Cutting into them I’d have preferred mine slightly pinker, but realised I hadn’t requested a cooking style, which some might consider, undercooked. And it has to be remembered there’s a balance that has to be reached between game/poultry being cooked pink, and actually being cooked at all. The roasting of my dish was perfectly acceptable for 90 per cent of the dining population – I sit in that odd 10 per cent of cannibals!
The meat had been very delicately smoked helping to impart that gamey woodland taste. Close your eyes and let your senses do the work. I could have been wandering through the forest smelling someone’s bonfire. The meat itself was tender and still succulent. These breasts are so small that a glance in the wrong direction can be the difference between cooked properly and being overcooked and dry, which they weren’t. The wild mushroom and blueberry fricassee worked well together with the richness of the soft earthy mushrooms against the contrasting blueberry, provided a sweet and savoury flavour to the dish against the background of the more natural and heartier smoked pigeon. And then, just to add in an extra texture, there was a potato lattice crisp. This was an accomplished plate of food.
Course three duly arrived – a mango sorbet with a raspberry coulis topped with a delicate spun sugar decoration. This was all about cleansing the palette and refreshing you for the main course. And that’s exactly what it did – in spades. The topmost layer consisted of that sharp raspberry coulis, under which sat the sweeter mango sorbet in its shot glass. Cold and semi-frozen, as a sorbet should be. It’s odd how one’s oral sensory inputs try to work out exactly what’s happening when you assault them with so many contrasting sensations. Sweet, sharp, soft, cold.
The star dish of the evening, however, was about to arrive. Ayrshire belly pork with an apple puree, black pudding ketchup, potato croquettes and finished with a cider jus.
What I expected wasn’t what was served, and I am so pleased this wasn’t the case. You see, belly pork is normally served as a slice of meat with gravy and mash. So I suppose I had that image in my mind when I ordered.
The plate duly arrived, and, well it’s fair to say I was speechless. This plate of food was a thing of beauty, it deserved so much more than my destroying it with fork and knife. The presentation, colours, shapes. I can see why this chef regularly walks away with awards year after year. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better piece of belly pork, and that’s saying something because I’ve eaten plenty over the years. Quite obviously slow cooked as the pork fat had rendered down into the meat creating a soft mouthwatering bite of something quite delicious – and for me, having the three slices of meat dressed in a crumb coating and delicately cooked to give a crisp texture, was a first, and I just love trying something new.
The croquettes contained a soft fluffy light potato mix, wrapped up in a golden brown breadcrumb and fried just the way I like them. The apple puree was sweet but not to the point of spoiling anything on the plate and worked exceptionally well with the cider jus dressing which were great dish partners. The meal was then brought together as a whole by the stronger black pudding ketchup and a selection of baby vegetables including carrots, asparagus tips, and sweet potato cubes. Could this dish be bettered? No, I don’t believe it can and plead with you not to change a thing about it. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever, its loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness.” John Keats (1795-1821).
I didn’t particularly fancy the dessert option of peanut butter and jelly with a pannacotta, so once again strayed onto another menu for the white chocolate and raspberry clafouti. For those who may be wondering what this is, traditionally a clafouti is a dish of fruit, usually cherries, covered with a sweet batter and oven baked. Have a look at the picture (below) of my dish and you’ll start to see why I say that Jason and his team have an eye for presentation. Just like every other dish, there was nothing to complain about here either. The sharp acidic notes of the raspberry folded through the creamy, buttery and rich batter was a perfect duo. Then to top it off was a dollop of home-made ice cream and that delicate spun sugar basket. I think I can safely leave this element of the review right here.
And for anyone keeping count, course seven was the cheeseboard served with home-made oatcakes and a small selection for grapes, celery and fruit chutney. At the time of my visit Carrs Water Biscuits were served instead of oatcakes which actually suited me just fine. Like most things, and as already mentioned, there’s a good selection of local cheeses plus some more unusual varieties. These change on a seasonal basis, and it’s worth asking what’s available at the time of your visit. I had a soft brie, a mature cheddar, a goats cheese and a stilton. The only problem is that by the time you’ve munched your way through six other courses and bread, will you have room for the cheeseboard?
And in keeping with the ethos of supporting local businesses, all fish and seafood are sourced from the local fishmonger in the town, meat is bought in from Gourlay’s butchers in Crieff, and fruit and veg from the local greengrocers. Food allergies and intolerances are fully catered for, and should you want something special cooked, let the hotel know in advance and they’ll do their best to accommodate you. It’s a win/win for both the hotel and local suppliers.
Another thing that’s very noticeable about the Rooftop is the level of imagination put into the dishes to make sure they work, and yet, there’s a delicate touch at work here too. Nothing is so strong it overpowers the other elements in a dish. This is refined dining but at prices much less than you’d pay for the same meal in many other ‘smugly displaying their rosette’ style restaurants. Some chefs are in this business for the kudos and publicity, others, like Jason, do it for the love of good food and cooking.
Would I eat here again – try and stop me!
For bookings see the hotels website at: Rooftop Restaurant
Food review undertaken in February 2019