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Ron Mackenna: Cafe 1, Inverness

To Inverness, then, and a walk through the islands first, surely the nicest and most undersold public park in the land.

The cooking at Cafe 1 soars when the chef adopts a simple approach; otherwise the food can be lacklustre. Photograph: Steve Cox
The cooking at Cafe 1 soars when the chef adopts a simple approach; otherwise the food can be lacklustre. Photograph: Steve Cox

Though I would say that, given that my sister and I used to skate on its arena way back when roller skates had a wheel at each corner. There used to be a great bicycle shop up here on Castle Street, too. It's gone, though I see Duncan Chisholm's, where my dad had his kilt made, is still thriving. The very same kilt now hangs in my wardrobe.

Cafe 1, Inversnecky's sometime most popular gaff according to Trip Advisor, is near the top of this hill. We've booked, we're early and what's more there are loads of free tables. Yet - and how many restaurants do this? - we still end up being shown to one of the worst in the whole place. It's perched at the entrance with staff thundering to and fro up and down the corridor and right by my jutting elbow as the restaurant fills up.

First impressions, apart from the table? Crikey. Is it really £9 for just one lunch course from the set menu in Inverness these days? How things have changed. Still, that menu says some of the dishes are sourced from the owner's croft Holly House - proper sourcing always seduces food critics - although it's not so clear on where the rest comes from, though local suppliers are certainly mentioned.

We'll return later to the decor, which is a cross between upscale champagne bar and 1980s disco to my admittedly untrained eye.

The food? First impressions here are a definite hit. Pan-fried gnocchi, with roasted vegetables and Ullapool cheddar? Sounds like it's going to be strange, but the gnocchi are actually lovely, crisp then soft, and the whole thing is packed with caramelised flavours. Who would have thought frying gnocchi would be so rewarding?

From the a la carte menu comes a Holly House highlander beef spring roll, one of the cheaper starters at £7. It looks great - crisp pastry, cut on the angle, crammed with beef and sitting atop a bed of carrots and beansprouts with chilli jam. This is surely what locally sourced produce is all about. Yet … somehow it's a little disappointing. Dull, even. There's not much flavour to the spring roll - it being composed entirely of slow-cooked beef - and with the chilli jam being little more than flavoured passata it's a bit like having pie filling with tomato sauce. Ho hum. Sometimes sourcing alone is not enough.

At least the breast of chicken stuffed with mozzarella and spinach not only looks good, but it's also brought searingly to life with a punchy parmesan sauce. That fondant potato is wet and watery, though. I know, I'm moaning, but if prices are set at a certain level then standards need to be at that level too.

There are two decently presented salmon fillets dipped in sesame seeds and served with mash and a pile of greens on top, but there's too much rich salmon and sesame for it to be finished.

The best dish of the meal? A couple of beef sausages, crisp on the outside, meaty inside, whacked on a pile of creamy mash and served with green beans. Simple. Excellent. Though de-stringing the green beans would have been good.

Now, it would be wrong not to mention that the front dining area of Cafe 1 has filled up and lunch is going like a fair. Clearly the set menu prices are popular with the locals. Still, I'm not sure about the decor, it being dark and brassy at times.

As for the service? Jekyll and Hyde today. When they get a moment the girls can be pleasant, but a lot of it is bish, bosh in the rush. Plates probably shouldn't be scraped at the table in this standard of restaurant. If you're dropping off the bill it's possibly better to break stride and look down at where it's going, or at the customers.

Yes, the place is busy, but is it good? Perhaps not as good as it thinks it is, but there are still plenty of positives.

75 Castle Street, Inverness (cafe1.net, 01463 226200)

Menu

Sprinkling of locally sourced dishes in global bistro style with home-reared beef spring roll mixing it with fresh pastas and even a Thai curry. 4/5

Atmosphere

Bustling, thriving local bistro that has a definite buzz when full, but our table was uncomfortably positioned. 3/5

Service

Hit and a miss on a busy lunch. Pleasant when chatting but plates shouldn't be scraped at table. Eye contact with customers helps. 3/5

Price

A la carte prices up there at the top level, especially the starters. Lunch £9 for one course, £12.50 for two. Doesn't deter the locals. 4/5

Food

The simplest dishes were the best including the pan-fried gnocchi and beef sausages. The rest failed to sparkle at this level. 6/10

Total 20/30

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