I recently stayed at the Elphinstone Hotel in Biggar for the purposes of reviewing the accommodation, and, normally I would simply include the meals we took within that main review. On this occasion, however, I feel that the food is good enough that it can stand to be reviewed in its own right.
My hotel review can be located at: Accomm: Biggar. The Elphinstone Hotel. Period character in a 16th-century coaching inn. which will give you some of the background and history to this establishment.
These first few paragraphs may seem familiar if you have read the hotel review, however, are entirely necessary for those readers who may simply be viewing this for the first time as a standalone food review.
Located just off the Main Street that runs through the town, parking is limited to approximately eight spaces directly outside the front door, however, if those are full, then directly across the street there are two other public car parks with ample spaces including marked disabled bays.
The kitchen has a brigade of three chefs and one kitchen porter. On the evening we visited, a Saturday in May there were two parties of 20 and 24 present plus a further 16 eating within the dining room in addition to more in the lounge bar. That’s a busy service by anyone’s standard – and more so with a kitchen brigade consisting of only four people.
In fact, it was that busy, while we were having a drink in the lounge, they must have turned away a good 20 people looking for a table. I know of many award-winning restaurant managers that would give up a right arm to be this busy on a Saturday evening in May, and the tourist season hasn’t even started yet! I wouldn’t fancy your chances of getting a table as a walk-in so I suggest you pre-book. But, and despite it being so busy, there was still an overall smooth professional slickness to the operation.
Food can be eaten in both the lounge bar area which is a more informal setting than either of the two dining rooms or private function suite. Please bear in mind that for disabled guests the lounge bar is the only option available as the dining room is set on a separate level accessed by stairs. However, it’s a pleasant room that also caters to the lunchtime trade with a bar meals menu which is available in the public bar next door.
We were promptly shown to our table at 7pm by one of the waiting staff, all of whom were exceptionally efficient.
Most of them appear to be school-age, yet despite their obvious youth, all of them, without exception, were friendly, helpful, and professional. It’s a pleasure to say that they not only broke but completely trashed the sometimes held assumption that youngsters are lazy, surly, unhelpful youths who wouldn’t thank you for a part-time job. A big round of applause to all of them, and to the hotel for employing so many from a small town which, I suspect, does not provide many opportunities for part-time youth employment.
The staff are all very attentive to their diners, but without being intrusive while a gentleman, I assumed to be the restaurant manager kept an overview of all that was going on. It was only later in the evening it transpired that this was actually the owner himself. There was little doubt that he employs a hands-on managerial style, yet in chatting to some of the staff, it was obvious that he engenders a great deal of respect from them.
The main dining area could seat around 60 for dinner depending on table configurations and a smaller secondary area containing four tables would be able to seat around eight to 12 for dinner. There is also a private function suite on the first-floor level and is available for parties, special events and funeral teas. It has a self-contained bar and a dance floor with access to the outdoor beer garden,
The menu isn’t so large that it becomes unwieldy, making choosing a dish a chore. However, there is still ample choice for most diners and particular dietary tastes from a range of meat, game, fowl, fish and vegetarian.
I had opted for the tasting starter which contained chicken strips, cheese nachos, onion rings, haggis balls and chilli mango prawns. My other half opted for the Cullen Skink soup.
My starter could never be described as Michelin star quality, but that’s not what this hotel is about. They are offering good quality, locally sourced produce which is cooked well at very reasonable prices. And, having seen the number of people that were turned away because there was no room available that Saturday evening indicates that their menu and price point is spot on for the local area.
I have just completed a recent review of a different establishment where I was forced to criticise their choice of frozen, pre-packed food, and part of the reason for my having chosen the tasting starter was simply to check if the restaurant lived up to its advertised blurb that everything, or as much as can be, is not only sourced locally but cooked fresh to order.
It’s very easy to tell from things like chicken strips and onion rings whether these are fresh or not. I’m pleased to report that in fact, everything on the tasting starter was, in fact, home-made and cooked fresh with the exception of the nachos, which is no surprise. Too often deep-fried foods can be greasy, overcooked and frankly tasteless cardboard. A starter like this soon sorts the men from the boys. The onion rings, by the very nature of the informal size and shape were doubtless fresh and proved to be exceptionally tasty. A good thickness of onion ring had been used which was coated in a delicate yet tasty batter, seasoned to perfection, and made for something which couldn’t be further from a frozen pre-packed product.
However, the star of the show was undoubtedly the haggis balls, of which there were two good-sized lumps on the plate. These were spicy with a nice peppery hit, the haggis was soft and held together well within the batter coating. At the time I remember thinking I wonder if I could get that as a supper at a local chippy! The breaded chicken strips were tender, soft succulent pieces of meat which hit the spot. Finally, the two chilli and mango prawns which had been butterflied and coated in a spicy panko breadcrumb also deserve a mention. The last element of this platter was the cheese nachos, which were, well, simply cheese nachos and I would suggest that these are swapped out for something else which shows off the kitchens skills and/or abilities. The platter also came served with two dips – a barbecue sauce and a tomato yoghurt.
Mrs Grub and Travel Guides said her soup was delightful. An accolade, because I’ve lost count of the number of time she’s complained when Cullen Skink soup has been too salty. This is normally only a problem if the smoked haddock has not been soaked in advance to remove some of that saltiness prior to cooking in the stock. Not so this time around. She did say she would have liked a little more fish which was a bit sparse, but the creamy “chowder” style base had plenty of potato and leek and the whole dish came together to produce a good quality version that those in its hometown of Cullen in Aberdeenshire would be proud of. And of course, no soup is complete without some carbohydrate to soak up what’s left and such was the case at the Elphinstone. The warm poppy seed bun was an added extra which Mrs M used to soak up the last dregs of golden nectar in the bottom of her bowl.
My main was the Fillet Jacobean described as being medallions of fillet beef layered with haggis and smothered in a pepper sauce, and that’s exactly what arrived on my plate. It was offered with a choice of chips or boiled potatoes and for me, there was no competition as to what works well with a steak – chips all the way! Now, I will say, that this perhaps isn’t the most delicate-looking of dishes and it certainly won’t win any prizes for presentation but, who cares when it tasted as good as it did. The meat is supplied by a local butcher three doors away from the hotel, as was the haggis and I had two good sized fillets, half-a-stone of hand-cut chips and yet a further portion of those onion rings, that’s how good they were and all of it generously coated with a luscious, thick, creamy, peppery sauce.
I always order my steaks rare if it’s a fillet I’ve chosen which can easily be cooked in such a manner. I’m well aware as a reviewer that many other cuts of meat containing fat will always taste superior to fillet once the fat renders down and works its way into the meat. On this occasion, however, the sauce did the job of adding an extra flavour to the excellent quality fillet beef which literally could have been pulled apart with two forks without the necessity of needing a knife.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve returned overcooked steaks to kitchens. In my book, it’s the sign of a good chef who can truly cook a steak to a customer specific requirements, particularly if ordered blue or rare. My beef was perfect – red in the middle and simply browned on the outside to seal in any juice, it was cooked as a rare steak should be.
The chips were excellent. None of that frozen potato that masquerades as a fry. These were skin-on, golden brown on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, they were little gems of potato delight.
The sauce complemented the meats rich earthiness layering in another level of flavour over both the steak and the haggis filling.
Mrs M chose one of the Elph’s specials, pork fillet with black pudding and caramelised apple with a cider cream sauce. Although the waitress had advised at the time of taking the order, that this was served with potato dauphinoise and vegetables, the dauphinoise had transformed into a mash and there was no veg. But no matter, Mrs M said it was perfectly fine the way it was served. There were two fried pork fillets with wedges of caramelised apples and slices of Stornoway black pudding all served with a cider cream sauce. The mash was smooth buttery and creamy and provided the base for the dish being the largest component with the remainder sitting proudly atop it. Mrs M felt she could have done with one more slice of the pork, however, at only £14.95 that was never going to happen, particularly when this was not a cheap cut of pork.
How often have you ordered pork in a restaurant which arrives at the table and looks just like the stuff your granny used to provide – tough, grey and inedible. Not at the Elphinstone, it was truly a delightfully tender, succulent and indeed mouthwatering piece of meat. You’ll never go wrong with Stornoway black pudding as an accompaniment. If you want to know what it is, click here The cider cream sauce was perfectly complementary to the whole dish wrapping it together as a fusion of flavours.
And to dessert. For me a caramel apple pie with ice cream and for Mrs M a snowball deluxe. My caramel apple pie was sweet, savoury, hot and cold. It was a taste sensation. The pie was well filled with good quality Bramley apples which had held their shape well, had a cheek-sucking tartness and created a foil to the sweeter caramel topping. The pastry was short, and delightfully buttery which encased all the other ingredients. The ice cream was plain vanilla, which was supplied by the award-winning Taylors of Biggar three doors down in the opposite direction from the butchers. Mrs M opted for one of her childhood delights a Lees coconut snowball served in a sundae glass with strawberry sauce and ice cream. And if, like us, you’re an aficionado of good quality home-made ice cream then get yourself along to Taylors in Biggar as I’ve now elevated them to the top of the list for the best ice cream in Scotland.
Unfortunately, we had left no room for teas or coffee!
The following morning we turned up for breakfast which was self-service. It’s served at weekends from 7.30 to 9.30am. A table had jugs of fruit juices, (apple, grapefruit and orange) which also contained a selection of yoghurts, cereals, and fresh fruits. There was also a hot buffet. This included fried eggs, bacon, sausage – square and links, beans, haggis, black pudding and freshly grilled half tomatoes.
Tea and coffee along with a selection of toast is served directly to the table. The staff on duty were very attentive bringing us extra toast and tea when requested. Empty main plates were removed promptly and, being a hot buffet, one could decide to have as little or as much as one wants for breakfast.
I’ve had many breakfasts over the years – some good, some excellent, and some utterly tragic excuses for breakfast. I have no idea why some hoteliers put so little faith in what essentially is the main meal of the day. So, I was exceptionally pleased to see that the black pudding was once again Stornoway, the haggis had been supplied by the butcher and was the same version used the previous evening, the tomatoes were fresh and not tinned, the local butcher had also supplied the two different types of sausages available along with the bacon, and the eggs were, I can say, free range. Oh, I nearly forgot the potato scones – yes, that’s right, from the bakery across the street!
The table had a selection of preserves, honey and marmalade in small individual jars. I worry slightly about wastage using these jars where very little is used and the remainder is wasted after being discarded. However, the alternative would be to supply larger dishes decanted from catering tins and quite possibly without as much choice being available, where, quite likely more than one person will have dipped a spoon into. I have never quite resolved the argument for and against in my own mind on this one.
So, do I recommend the Elphinstone for its food offering? Without a doubt, it’s a resounding yes. If you don’t want fussiness and fancy presentation and are more about the support of local businesses using quality produce to create cracking home-cooked honest-to-goodness food, the Elphinstone is for you.