If it hadn't been that a reliable source tipped me off, I would never have ended up eating at the Anderson in the pretty little seaside town of Fortrose.
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But then I learnt that the Anderson had been taken over by an enthusiastic American couple. Jim Anderson, it transpires, is ex-wine trade, hence the interesting wine list, the 160 malts available by the glass, the 60 Belgian beers and the eclectic selection of real ales sold in the bar. Anne Anderson is an Italian-American, veteran of the New Orleans restaurant scene with its Cajun, Creole and French influences, and cosmopolitan Philadelphia, where she immersed herself in Asian cooking. Knowing this background, the Andersons' stated mission of using the Highlands' indigenous ingredients to make "exciting, yet accessible, borderless cuisine" looked much more convincing.
This old country inn has a wonderfully civilised feel to it, with a welcoming, lingering smell from the wood-burning stove in the bar. And the food was better than I had dared hoped, even upsetting some long-held prejudices. As a general rule, I avoid surf 'n' turf combos, but here was one that really worked. One plump, luscious scallop had been flame-grilled and encircled with thin slices of smoked wild duck breast, the smoky-sweet elements harnessed by an excellent dressing using walnut oil and fresh orange juice. Crisp little whitebait only benefited from being given a Sichuan treatment, liberally salted, fried, then enlivened with stir-fried green and red chillis.
Memphis barbecue chicken? In most establishments, you would have to drag me kicking and screaming to try this dish, which sounds like a recipe for nasty, intensively reared broiler slathered in Thousand Chemical sauce. But it was splendid, a breast and leg of free-range bird, still on the bone, that had been expertly smoked - neither too much nor too little - then grilled to leave juicy flesh under an ultra-crisp, adeptly seasoned skin. With it, an intriguing "secret barbecue sauce" whose ingredients I could only guess at. Tomato? Certainly. Vinegar? Probably. Maple syrup, cinnamon, chilli...? Perhaps. Whatever was in there, it was excellent. Definitely the most exciting chicken dish I've eaten in a long while.
The sika deer fillet, Puebla, was equally impressive. It was an inspired idea to serve succulent, pink venison fillet with a Mexican "mole" sauce. Every mole is different, with varying combinations of spices, but they all share two common ingredients - dark chocolate and chilli. Once again, I tried fruitlessly to identify them. Cumin, cloves, cinnamon...? I gave up, and just enjoyed how this deep, characterful, invigorating sauce worked so well with the intensity of the venison.
New York caramel cheesecake? Sounds like a million bad supermarket offerings, the sort of bought-in job you find in lazy pubs. It's the real thing here, a textbook Manhattan specimen with its crunchy base, its fresh curdy cheese and deep, fudgy tasting caramel, clearly made from scratch. Across the table, there was more of a Provençale theme as a capable, eggy lemon tart with impeccable short pastry was teamed up with fragrant lavender ice cream.
The Anderson shows how outsiders can take a fresh look at a restaurant or a location and bring something new to it that is genuine, but original. For all that it is right to support local food and defend traditions, intelligent innovation that makes good use of raw materials is to be applauded. It does not come over as a place that is full of itself, rather a great little enterprise run by modest people who are almost shy about trumpeting its virtues.
The prices at the Anderson are charitably, pleasingly low, with the bulk of main courses costing £10-£13, stunning value when you consider the thought and effort lavished on the food. Wine buffs will be in their element. Wine mark-ups are noticeably restrained and you can even drink a great claret like Léoville Poyferré for pretty much the price it would attract at auction.
The Anderson, Union Street, Fortrose 01381 620 236 Lunch/Dinner £5-£25 Food rating 9/10