Rocpool Restaurant, Inverness

So we’re in, we’re seated, and in the square window is the outside world with a real river running through it and a picture-postcard castle. And it’s almost like the lockdown never happened.

Almost. Apart from squirty stuff at the door, the masks the staff are wearing, two-hour slots for dinner, the booking in mucho advance and, er, the prices. It’s a while since I have been in Rocpool, so I can’t say if they are normally this salty but there’s certainly a whiff of a general rise in restaurant pricing in the fresh and flighty post-pandemic air. However.

The correct price for restaurant food remains the price customers will pay and then come back again, without too much moaning. And, as this place is going

like a Highland fair this evening, then no more on that. Well, apart from this: we would come back here again. It may be giving the game away early but we will enjoy our first sit-down restaurant meal for four months. Immensely.

Yes, it’s a bit weird, almost surgical, being served by people in masks, and I’ll blame muffled communication issues for my crystal-clear request for a bottle of Diet Coke, in the actual bottle please, being met with Diet Coke in a glass with no bottle whatsoever – but otherwise?

Customers are bustling in and out; chatty people are chatting; it being Inverness, it seems there are still loads of tourists right out there on the city’s sunny streets. And in here too, over our heads and back and forth, there’s a fair bit of twangy local banter. Always a good thing that.

On the plate? Golden, crisped and local chanterelle mushrooms, slivers of black pudding, shavings of parmesan and a plump, pert duck egg basted in garlic and parsley butter. Straight from the pages of a glossy magazine.

So attractive that No 2 son sitting beside me abandons his lifelong aversion of mushrooms just to try one. There’s a scallops starter too, three of them in

their shells at £15.95 – how far away

is the sea from here? – with baby chorizo, creme fraiche and a lemon, garlic and parsley butter. Those scallops almost crisped, yet insides creamy white, smooth and clean – a good sparkly, punchy dish that manages to look and taste like it cost a lot. Which it does.

We all try Cal’s starter of dipped, fried courgette flowers – a favourite when in Italy – this time stuffed with whipped goats cheese and on a tangy peppers, capers and basil version of the pepperonata everyone’s Nonna used to make.

And now a first, for us anyway, arrives with the main courses. Tuscan gnudi. Kinda looking like electric green gnocchi for rich people, yet there’s no potato in there, simply spinach, ricotta, egg yolks and nutmeg, making a light, luscious, summery flavour.

By the time my fork parts a buttery brown roasted Shetland Halibut fillet, still glistening from the pan, scoops up nuggety brown shrimp and slices into a super-crisped parmesan polenta on baby leeks I’m won over. What’s not to like about any of this? Those beef cheeks with a parmesan risotto, red wine jus and carmelised shallots and broad bean in a garlic and thyme butter were deft, slick and deeply flavoured.

Only one dish excites a “meh”. That’s the linguine with hand-dived scallops, king prawn, oven-roasted cherry tomatoes and garlic and chilli oil.

A £24 spin on definitely the greatest dish of southern Italian cucina povera: Aglio e oglio. The problem? Not the seafood, which is scattered over it like a selection of lush jewels. Not the linguine either, though spaghetti would be my choice.

It’s simply that there’s next to no flavour in the garlic and chilli oil – ironic, really, as the secret ingredient in most of the dishes we’ve enjoyed at Rocpool have been the deeply flavoured garlic butters. Still, can’t have everything.

This classy restaurant has been here a long time and seen off a lot of challenges. It’s still doing that.

Opening hours: book online, closed Monday and Tuesday

Rocpool Restaurant

1 Ness Walk

Inverness IV3 5NE

+44(0)1463 717274

info@rocpoolrestaurant.com

Opening hours: book online closed Monday and Tuesday

Menu: Scottish with a sophisticated Italian flavour, spinachy gnudi, crisped parmesan polentas, garlicky overtones on fresh halibut, plump beef cheeks, local chanterelle. 5/5

Service: It’s not yet the same with the poor waiting staff all masked up for sensible reasons but brisk, swift and efficient if not much lingering for any chat. 4/5

Price: There’s no getting away from starters that hit can £16, mains that largely squeeze in over £20 and two hour slots but its still classy food and very popular 3/5

Atmosphere: First post-lockdown restaurant and apart from what will be the new normal of a clock ticking around the tables it was like the good old days. 4/5

Food: The ingredients glisten, the plates sparkle, nothing leaves the kitchen without looking lush and with flawless courgette flowers, golden chanterelle, and simply great halibut they’re still pulling it off on the plate 8/10

Total: 24/30