There are surprises on chef Sean Kelly's no-choice menu at the Lovat, Loch Ness, and cheese on toast is one of them, says Neil Gerrard
But that is what you could find on the £45 no-choice five-course menu devised by chef Sean Kelly in the restaurant at the Lovat hotel beside Loch Ness.
Of course, it isn't cheese on toast in the conventional sense, nor even a rarebit or other posher counterpart. But Kelly isn't about to let on to diners until the dish arrives in front of them. Surprise, after all, is what he aims to achieve with his menu.
Essex-born Kelly took over at the Lovat in 2011, having previously worked at Abstract, Edinburgh, where he won Scottish Restaurant Chef of the Year 2008, as well as being head chef for Tom Lewis at Loch Lomond's Monachyle Mhor. Before that, he completed a tour of duty in France, honing his skills in several Michelin-starred restaurants.
While he may not be aiming for a star at the Lovat - although he'd be happy to claim a third AA rosette - some of the inventiveness that Kelly picked up in those kitchens has clearly rubbed off on his creations for the hotel's restaurant, which seats up to 24 people and is open four days a week.
"Cheese on toast" is actually far more original than its name suggests. First of all, Kelly makes a lemon cheesecake, spreads it thinly on some acetate, and then blast-freezes it before cutting holes out of it until it looks rather like a slice of Emmental. Then he serves it with a "toast ice-cream", which uses beer bread toasted until it is very dark and blitzed and churned into a basic ice-cream. The result rarely fails to get diners' attention.
"The menu is designed to try to get diners talking about the food," he says. "It is very understated. We just like to have a couple of the key ingredients and then work around that and, hopefully, they get some sort of surprise."
It's a similar story with the prosaically named "shellfish, seaweed, shells". The simplicity of the dish's name belies some complex and playful cooking techniques. Kelly makes a fricassée of clams and mussels to put in the bottom of the bowl, layered on top with a crab ravioli. On top of this he adds mussel shells. But instead of using real mussel shells, he creates convincing replicas made of black garlic, squid ink and flour.
"We roll that out very, very thin, probably about 1mm thick, then line it over the top of a mussel shell, dry them out and fry them and they release from the shell," he says.
The dish is completed with an oyster froth. So realistic do the shells look that diners often have to be told that they are actually edible.
Kelly and his brigade of five chefs have the time to prepare such creations thanks to a change in menu format brought about last year, which saw the five-course no-choice menu replace the previous selection of four starters, four mains and four desserts. Anyone with allergies or other dietary requirements is still catered for, but the fixed menu allows the chefs to concentrate on delivering consistent quality, not just in the restaurant, but in the hotel's brasserie as well.
The Lovat also takes sustainability very seriously - as is proven by the fact that the business won the Sustainable Business Award, sponsored by Alaska Seafood, at this year's Cateys. Driven by owner Caroline Gregory, the sustainability focus means the chefs in the kitchen must be on their toes when it comes to separating waste, putting leftover food into a variety of three different composters. Also, the chefs source from local suppliers, and Kelly enjoys the abundance of opportunities to forage locally.
"There are massive numbers of chanterelles around here just coming into season and they are almost literally on your doorstep," he says. "There's wild garlic, sweet cicely, and we will get raspberries later on - so from a chef's point of view it is great."
As for the future, Kelly plans to work on bringing more Scottish elements on to the menu. That could mean haggis in a canapé or elsewhere, and he is even considering incorporating the notorious deep-fried Mars bar.
But, just as with "cheese on toast", what Kelly really has in mind for one of Scotland's most controversial culinary creations is likely to remain a surprise.
Sample dishes from the menu
- Venison, liver, garden beets
- Crab, curry, apple
- Steak and kidney, snails, garlic
- Duck egg, strawberries, black pepper
- Continental breakfast
The Lovat, Loch Ness, â¨Fort Augustus, Inverness-shire PH32 4DU 01456 490000