I’ve always been told to never judge a book by its cover and it is very wise advice, especially when booking a restaurant.
Many a time I’ve turned my nose up outside a place thinking ‘this doesn’t look like much’, only to be humbled by brilliant food.
The same happened last weekend as we travelled an hour-and-a-half to Monachyle MHOR at Balquhidder in Perthshire - billed as a luxury boutique hotel in an 18th century farmhouse and steading with food from award-winning chef Tom Lewis and head chef Marysia Paszkowska.
It’s not to be confused with MHOR 84 (which I did) – the motel which does food at the turn-off to Balquhidder from the A84 main route to the Highlands.
The same family also have the MHOR Fish and MHOR Bread shops in Callander, which you drive through if you’re coming from the Stirling direction.
I’ve been hillwalking up this way plenty of times. You pass Rob Roy MacGregor’s grave in Balquhidder on the way here and up in the surrounding hills and mountains is Rob Roy’s mythical Putting Stone – a lovely wee wander with a fantastic view.
It’s a fantastic, slow drive right along the banks of Loch Voil through vivid woodland until you reach the hotel
When my better half said she had booked MHOR for us I thought it was the motel, not knowing of the existence of Monachyle as it is four miles on from Balquhidder along a bumpy single track road.
It’s a fantastic, slow drive though, right along the banks of Loch Voil through vivid woodland until you reach the hotel.
As I mentioned, the garish pink of the building, which sits on the summit of a stretch of land in between the Voil and Doine lochs, was a bit of a put-off, but I’ve seen been told why the colour is important.
According to my source (one of our readers), the Jacobites painted their homes pink in this part of Scotland to let Bonnie Prince Charlie know it was a ‘safe house’ where he could take refuge as he evaded his English tormentors.
The exterior, however, is a complete contrast to the interior thankfully. Inside it is very modern and minimalistic.
It is, shall we say, compact and bijou, with low ceilings throughout. At reception sits an inviting drinks cellar-type room and through a long, narrow corridor you enter the small and snug bar area which was inhabited by a few drinkers and a dog next to a log fire which, mixed with the aromas wafting from the kitchen behind the bar, smells inviting and homely.
The colour scheme is very much whites, greys and charcoal fused with the stone of the old building and brightened up with contemporary paintings on the walls created by the chef’s sister Melanie.
The main dining area is again rather intimate, long and narrow but every table has a fantastic view of the opposite hills and the lochs either side. It’s worth the journey alone.
Outside the panoramic window is a seated area you could drink in the views all day in summer.
The very cheap internet deal my canny fiancee booked was a five-course meal for two for just £40 which, at this stage of the proceedings, was beginning to look like a bargain before a peek at our menu confirmed this.
Not a lot on it, which I like, just a few options and each dish sounded deliciously accomplished.
After some lovely, crispy bread and butter, first up was a colourful amuse-bouche of mackerel pate, pickled watermelon, a bread crisp and pickled cucumber which was a brilliant and tasty opener - the pickled watermelon a particularly nice surprise.
Monachyle will always be the place I tried pigeon for the first time – Aberfeldy wood pigeon with Tamworth pork belly, shallots, kohlrabi and cucumber.
The pigeon was lovely and soft sitting atop three different sauces and the vegetables. I’ll be having pigeon again.
Next up was a potato, leek and watercress soup in a small espresso-style cup topped with rapeseed oil and toasted pumpkin seeds which was wonderful, the oil giving the petite dish a little kick and the seeds adding a little earthiness.
For the main I chose the venison which came in three thin strips with roasted vegetables, some braised meat, cavolo nero, juniper, a dod of skirlie, carrot puree and a rich dark sauce drizzled over the top and artistically on the plate.
The venison was cooked to perfection, pink in the middle with a dark outside and mouth-wateringly tender.
The veg was soft and vibrant and the cabbage added texture, as did the skirlie, while the sauce, puree and juniper added the sweetness. A perfect combination and definitely my kind of food.
Service is terrific with each of the waiting staff explaining to you what’s on your plate and where it comes from - most of which is foraged on the Mhor Estate on the surrounding land. Drinks are quite expensive though.
The only dessert I fancied was the selection of cheeses. There was only one I didn’t eat as it tasted foul – obviously a personal choice – but the home-made biscuits and chutney were superb. A brilliant way to wrap up a fine, hearty, wholesome meal.
Balquhidder, Perthshire, FK19 8PQ.
Tel: 01877 384622
Sample Dinner Menu – £57 per person
Isle of Mull brown crab, Mara Dulse seaweed, sour dough, bisque
Braised Monachyle venison neck, nettle crust, skirlie, wild sorrel
Wild sea trout, spiced beetroot, horseradish crème fraiche, apple, fennel
Our own Tamworth pork, yellow chicory, garden land cress, three mustard
Loch Carron turbot, braised shallot, potato gratin, garden chard, broccoli purée
Roast summer squash, goat’s cheese risotto, pomegranate dressing, sage
Lemon posset, poached raspberry, chocolate crumble
Unpasteurised British Isles farmhouse cheeses, homemade oatcakes and chutney
Dark chocolate and espresso pavé, Glengoyne bramble, vanilla ice cream