Food – Pathhead: The Stair Arms. Going in hungry is a good plan – portions are huge!

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It’s fair to say, there’s one thing you can generally rely on from a chef –  and it’s that they don’t oversell their products! And such is the case with the Stair Arms in Pathhead.

It promises good old-fashioned wholesome homemade pub grub with the odd nod here and there to a more modern style, just to shake things up a bit.

And one of the best things about it all is the fact it’s done seamlessly. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had problems with food service. Overcooked grub, cold food, delays, surly staff to name but a few but you won’t find any of these at this delightful country inn.

Located off the main A68 south-east of Dalkeith and within shouting distance of Scotland’s capital city,  The Stair Arms in Pathhead sits high above the River Tyne in an enviable countryside location.

The ‘B’ listed historic building was built in the1830s as a coaching inn covering the old droving route between the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. The building was originally commissioned by the late Lord and Lady Stair of Oxenfoord in 1831.  The venue has recently undergone a complete refurbishment of its main public areas and bedrooms.

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The Stair Arms, Pathhead

I’d actually visited for the purposes of a hotel review since the place had recently undergone a complete upgrade, however, having eaten in the dining room on the evening of our stay – and enjoyed it so much – I decided that the food quality merited a review of its own.

So, having booked a table for 7.30pm in we trundled and were promptly shown to it. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere here, no fussiness and staff who are approachable, friendly and exude an air of quiet professionalism.

We were seated at a table for four by the fireside. It’s one of my pet hates being squeezed onto a tiny table where you’re continually having to play chess and rearrange the table furniture to make room for food dishes, glasses etc.

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Refurbished dining room

Anyway, as touched on earlier, the dining room has benefited from the same high-class refurb as the rest of the ground floor areas.

It now provides a lovely light, airy and calming place in which to eat. It uses an identical colour palette matching the rest of the building, with tones of gold, cream and grey.

It’s an open-plan dining room with ample space for wheelchair users, although the upstairs section can only be reached by a single flight of steps. This smaller area could provide private dining for around 20 covers.

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Light, bright and airy. A great space to eat in.

I’d describe this as a chic and modern country cottage style. There’s no doubt it stands out from the original exterior facade of the building – 1830s stonework. It’s quite the transformation from that era to a clean and modern interior which could easily stand on its own two feet in any city centre location.

But, I digress. Menus were provided, the standard table d’hote and the festive one which had just been introduced for the winter season.

Our drinks order was taken and delivered to the table. One small point to note is the hotel does not stock large bottles of mineral water (1litre). Our waitress apologised when she returned with the smaller 500ml version. However, she also brought a larger flagon of the finest tap water The Stair Arms can offer.

We were given ample time to choose our food and nobody rushed us into making hasty decisions.

In keeping with the more laid-back and less formal dining experience, you’ll find small zinc pails on the table containing your cutlery and paper napkins. So don’t expect cotton napkins or three courses of cutlery to be laid at the table by a waiter or waitress dressed in bow ties.

Next up was the delivery of a slate containing home-made bread along with two dips. A tomato and herb and a Thai crème fraîche. The two home-made rolls were warmed, and although being a butter lover, I was torn between the very much simpler warmed bread-and-butter or using the dips. I read a review recently while doing my homework on this establishment, that complained the bread was tasteless and unseasoned. Nonsense – the bread was just fine the way it was. It’s intended as a carrier for the flavours incorporated in the dips which speak for themselves. You don’t need heavily seasoned bread, all you’ll do is affect the flavours of the dips. The lighter crème fraîche one would lose its delicate flavouring if it were to become overloaded with too much salt-and-pepper.

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Complimentary bread and dips.

You know, I’ve eaten in places where a waitress asked if we’d like some bread and olives, then at the end of the night had the audacity to charge for them. So, to see this being provided gratis was a lovely surprise. For me, though, the tomato and herb dip was definitely the mover and shaker on that plate. Piquant, yet sweet too, and with a smooth basil aftertaste coming through. I could easily have had this as a bowl of soup if it had been heated up!

I chose the haggis bonbons as my starter while Mrs M, always a sucker for soup plumped for the home-made lentil.

There were four golden brown spheres sitting in a bowl on a bed of local Glenkinchie whisky and wholegrain mustard sauce. Another of my pet hates is when any dish is served in a veritable swimming pool of sauce, so much so, it just kills all other flavours.

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Haggis bonbons with a whisky and mustard sauce

The local haggis was well seasoned, peppery, held together well had enough mutton fat to ensure it wasn’t too dry. Wrapped in a light crispy batter, almost tempura-like, which provided a change of texture in addition to a right flavour hit when a dollop of that whisky/mustard sauce was added. All in all, while a simple starter perhaps, not requiring huge levels of technical expertise, it was an extremely accomplished dish because of the high-quality ingredients which had been cooked exceptionally well.

I have ordered this dish in many places – and have had some pretty poor imitations. inferior quality haggis, thick batter, overcooked by oil which was burnt and had probably never been changed in months, are just some of the problems. For most chefs, it’s all about having pride in your food and treating your ingredients with respect, well for me it is, no matter what type of food and to whom it is being provided.

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Mrs M could hardly touch her soup for five minutes it was that hot. And it was a right good-sized bowl too. I tasted it, purely for the purposes of research. I’d go so far as to say it had been made from a ham hough – quite possibly a smoked one. It was well seasoned with a nice hint of pepper, but with a  smoothness in the texture from its blending. Sometimes, if the lentils are not washed properly they don’t cook out and you’ll end up with a rather strange “halfway” soup with a liquid which separates from the solids.

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Homemade lentil soup

Next up were the mains. I couldn’t resist – my very first Christmas dinner and it was only November!

Mrs M decided she’d quite fancied the Shetland salmon fillet.

I’m going to slap myself on the wrist now for thinking it. But, I was aware the hotel was hosting a Christmas dinner party in the function suite that evening for 150 people, so wrongly assumed the turkey would have been the processed and formed variety of ‘turkey roll’. But no, when my plate arrived two lovely slices of white breast meat was self-evident.

Surrounded by a veritable assortment of roast potatoes, potato croquettes, Brussel sprouts, sage and onion stuffing, turnip and carrot batons, pigs in blankets, gravy and the pièce de résistance, cranberry sauce, of which, in my humble opinion, no Christmas dinner is complete without. What a plateful and it should be plenty for even the hungriest of diners.

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My first turkey dinner of the year!

As I said, my first Christmas dinner and how could you go wrong when the roasties were cooked perfectly – crispy and golden on the outside, fluffy and light on the inside. The same could be said for the potato croquettes. The two slices of turkey were a good palm-sized, soft, tender, succulent and certainly hit the mark. There’s nothing worse, and there’s no excuse for dry meat that’s been overcooked. No amount of gravy or sauce is ever going to rescue such a disaster. The sprouts, that nemesis of many a Christmas dinner – usually because most of us have visions of our mother or granny cooking them to within an inch of their lives. You’ll remember the olive green-grey coloured object with a consistency that in no way could ever resemble a small round green vegetable. The carrot and turnip batons still retained a bite which is a fair achievement when your cooking in quantities.

You could neither complain not criticise the entire meal. Containing all the necessary components of a good Christmas dinner, filling and piping hot. You’d have to be fairly picky to find fault with this meal.

The next dish to come under scrutiny was the salmon fillet. It was cooked perfectly just past the translucent point to a light pink where it flaked really well but still held its shape. The delicate white wine, cream and dill sauce didn’t overpower. Dill, while a great marriage with fish, using too much can overpower and kill a dish and you don’t want to be risking that with a delightfully tasty piece of prime Shetland salmon.

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Shetland salmon fillet in cream, white wine and dill sauce.

These days very little salmon which appears on our plates is line-caught or in any sense of the word, wild. Most of the served salmon is the farmed variety. That’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with that type of product, as long as it’s reared ethically.

The salmon was carried well by the sauce which was creamy, and although the white wine had been cooked out to reduce or remove the alcohol, it still retained a flavour of the wine grape. This dish was supplied with the same potatoes and vegetable that the turkey dinner was served with.

The kitchen prides itself on using as much locally sourced ingredients as is possible. All fish, meat, vegetables, potatoes and even the ice cream are all supplied from within a radius of 30 miles from the hotel.

The restaurant provides excellent home-cooked food using quality local ingredients and isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. This is pub grub at its best and I am not surprised that the dining room was full on the evening of my visit. The pricing structure is, in my opinion, too low, but that may be part of the reason why it was busy. It’s always better to be full and make a small profit, rather than price yourself out of the market completely.

I suspect the management of taking a bold choice here and from what I can see it’s paying off with the number of guests.

Next up we were presented with the dessert menus after a suitable cooling-off period from the main course.

To be honest I struggled greatly with this particular course. There were far too many excellent choices to make it an easy task. I mean who wouldn’t want an apple crumble Sundae.

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Apple crumble sundae.

I ended up, after much prevarication, going for the profiteroles with cream but without the advertised chocolate sauce option. You see I fancied trying a scoop of that home-made vanilla ice cream and the butterscotch sauce sounded too good to turn down! 

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profiteroles with cream and butterscotch sauce – and ice cream!

Did you hear me whooping? Light golden brown orbs of fluffy choux pastry absolutely full of cream – smothered in a light, buttery, sweet butterscotch sauce and with a dollop of home-made vanilla ice cream – how could a food critic not like this?

Mrs M confirmed the stewed apples were real pieces of fruit and not from a tin. They had been arranged in layers with the vanilla ice cream which was delightfully velvety smooth and absolutely not an ice crystal to be found throughout, with a creamy buttery aftertaste really did top off an excellent meal.

Full hotel review can be found here: Accomm – Pathhead: The Stair Arms. A modern chic overhaul is hidden behind an original 1830s facade.

For further information see the hotel website at: The Stair Arms

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