Someone in Stirling has got a nasty case of cheffy-itis. Hotels seem to attract chefs with this particular ailment. The most obvious symptom is a tendency to favour ridiculous presentation at the expense of sound cooking skills, which in turn causes the secondary symptom of charging far too much money for mediocre food. Last week during a work trip to Scotland I encountered a particularly serious case.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you scallops with Parmesan risotto, ham hock and pea puree. Before we tackle the food itself, let's discuss the vessel upon which it rests. It was a polished black marble tile, reminiscent of what you might find on the toilet walls in a glammed up Indian restaurant. Personally I'd have preferred a plate. Polished tiles don't tend to hold sauces very well.
The food, to be fair, wasn't all actively bad. Both scallops and risotto were reasonably well cooked, but the whole thing was too salty. The chunks of ham hock were salty, the risotto was salty, the bacon antenna (maybe I wasn't supposed to eat it?) sticking out of the risotto was very salty, and the pea puree was very salty indeed. Fortunately there wasn't very much of the pea puree, which could be best described as a pea wet skid mark on the right hand side of the tile. I'm not sure what the sauce on the scallops was, perhaps it was supposed to be a foam. Whatever it was it had split, resulting in unappetising fatty globules and watery patches shimmering on the tile as if someone were mopping it down at the end of the night. All told a bit of a mess.
I should note at this point that not everyones dinner was being served on a tile. Other people were getting plates. I can only assume the tiles must have been reserved for the specials, from which list my scallops were ordered. Those lucky enough to receive their dinner on a plate, however, were also lucky enough to have their dinner brought to the table under a cloche! Yes that is one of those big silver domes, as if this were dinner with the Queen.
Unfortunately the tiles made a return at dessert. A whisky cheesecake with bourbon soaked strawberries didn't contain any discernable whisky or bourbon, which was probably a good thing. I'm not sure what the strawberry (for there was only one, hiding at the back) had been soaked in, but it was so wizened it must have been soaked in it a long time ago. The cheesecake base was also past its best, being soft and mushy. No-one likes a soggy biscuit. The cheesecake filling was actually rather nice, being light and creamy.
Prices, as you might expect, were high. The two courses, a glass of crap wine and a small tip topped out at over thirty quid. The service was fine.
Why do so many hotels do this? It's as if there's a special checklist for rubbish hotel restaurants. Overpriced? Check. Overwrought, silly presentation? Check. Mediocre food? Check. Pointless service fripperies? Check.
Here's an alternative idea. How about: buy some good food, cook it properly, put it on a plate, bring it to me, charge me a fair price for it. Maybe one day it will catch on. Unfortunately I fear that's wishful thinking. Too many expense accounts, too many people are easily impressed, too captive an audience. I met two of those three criteria. I won't eat there again, but once is enough to keep the coffers ticking over.
Barcelo Stirling Highland Hotel
p.s. for an even worse hotel meal see here.