Aultbea Hotel

Seafront, Aultbea, Wester Ross (, 01445 731201)

WE’LL never actually set foot in the restaurant tonight. By the time we’re told there’s a table free through there we’ve already adjusted to the strangely seductive electric lights in the bar, stretched out on the leather couch and are soaking up the heat from that throbbing wood fire.

The drinkers are a-drinking – tanning a bottle of house white, in fact – and the driver (that will be me) is aimlessly a-cracking and a-eating squat lobster tails.

There’s a long whippetty dog over there stretched out like he owns the bloody place. Which it turns out he does.

As for the lighting, somebody somewhere saw those filament lightbulbs that are all the rage in Glasgow and brought a case of them back to Aultbea to complete the boutique transformation of a bar that surely must have have once had all the panache of a school hut. They hang charmingly above us right now glowing atmospherically though, of course, producing absolutely zero useable light.

By the illumination of two mobile phones and a flickering candle, then, Gibbo, Robbie and myself take forkfuls of a great fish pie that is crammed with chunks of meaty tusk – a long and thin white fish – and grey mullet, topped by a creamy mash and a cracking sauce.

A loaf of white bread baked on the premises is also being used to soak up a tomato broth that a few moments ago surrounded langoustine tails that themselves were not so long ago surrounded by Loch Ewe itself – currently lapping calmly outside the restaurant window somewhere.

That dish, which included langoustine ravioli of all things, is from the restaurant-we-don’t-set-foot-in menu as is new season grouse and butter-poached Loch Broom lobster.

We don’t go any further than the langoustines from there, ordering the rest from the interesting bar menu because tonight, Matthew, we just feel like it.

My chums are also a tad weary having trudged through miles of uphill peat bog to join the queues that form at the top of Munros round here while those who aren’t hillwalkers – meaning me – cruised round at a peaceful loch level looking at castor oil trees (seriously) and watching fat seals brazenly sunning themselves on even fatter rocks. There may even have been a porpoise jumping from a loch, though I’m sure it was another deranged seal.

Anyway, enough of spectacular-in-the-sunshine Wester Ross and more of good-on-the-palate Wester Ross crab salad with a creamy dressing and a tangy gazpacho jelly.

Incoming news, too, on little crispy aubergine croquettes that are accompanied by the hotel’s made-in-house cheese rolled in crunchy nigella seeds. They’re good, though need seasoning. To my right Gibbo is wrestling with a slippery local lobster (served with chips for £30), the contest briefly pausing while the Czech waiter takes the claws that are impossible to open with the stupid claw cracker thing back to the kitchen for a stiff talking-to with a hammer.

Meanwhile we chat about chips. Triple-cooked, as they inevitably are these days. Usually very badly. Heston Blumenthal has a lot to answer for. They are, of course, not chips at all but actually roast potato hunks.

“Roosters,” the waiter had replied when asked what the potatoes were. Somewhat disappointing that reply was for those of us who had hoped, maybe even, ahem, claimed, that these clearly were exotic spuds, probably russetts, grown in primeval peat on some deserted Highland islet. Never mind, they tasted surprisingly excellent. As have most things.

OK, that tomato broth maybe lacked punch and squat lobster are much better freshly steamed in their own juices.

A nice little short-crust pastry pie with brambles rounds off the evening before we drive to the hotel where we are staying for a night cap. Only to find the lights completely off, the doors firmly locked and most alarmingly the bar totally closed. At 10.30pm. But that’s in the old Highlands.

Menu: Interesting stuff from the loch and sea – bread from their own ovens, cheese made themselves. What more could you ask for? 5/5

Atmosphere: Hard to tell it was so dark, but relaxing with a wood fire burning in a stylish, fashionable yet quirky slice of the new Highlands. 4/5

Service: Pleasant, laidback and quite happy to serve us from the restaurant menu as we lounged in the bar. 4/5

Price: The loch may be right out there but you’ll still pay £9.50 for a crab salad and a tenner for a smoked salmon small plate. Not cheap. 3/5

Food: The fish pie was the best dish of the night and one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Lovely bread and good simple seafood made it an almost great bar meal. 8/10

Total: 24/30