Review by Fiona Duncan, published 7th October 2010.
The Scots are impressive when it comes to putting a brave face on things. "What a beautiful day it's been," commented a guest as we nibbled our canapés. "Yes, indeed, we've been blessed by the weather today," replied her daughter.
My friend Geraldine and I stared at each other, open mouthed. For the first time since our arrival in Scotland, it had only drizzled all day, in a desultory sort of way, rather than actually tipping it down as before.
"We don't have the best climate in the world," agrees chef/proprietor Tom Lewis, "but who comes here for the weather? We have other things. Look at this scenery. And our food: we have great flavours in Scotland. The trick is to keep things simple."
This philosophy is borne out not just by his menu, much of it home grown or shot on his 2,000-acre estate, but by his farmhouse hotel, rooted in the landscape and in the past.
This is the territory of Rob Roy, from whom I am apparently descended. Monachyle Mhor, beautifully set overlooking Lochs Doine and Voil, has been painted pink since the folk hero's day to show that its occupants were, like him, Jacobite sympathisers. It's a small place with a big heart and a whirlwind – Tom Lewis – at its centre.
Tom's parents, Rob and Jean, settled here in 1983 and first farmed, then started offering bed and breakfast as well. Soon the farmhouse evolved into a fully fledged hotel, with Tom taking on the mantle of chef, quickly picking up awards. More enterprises have subsequently sprouted (Tom never stops): a tea shop in the village and a bakery and wet fish/fish and chip shop in nearby Callander, which he runs with his brother and sister, Dick and Melanie.
When you discover that the three siblings have an eye for contemporary design (Melanie is an accomplished artist) you won't be so surprised by what lies inside their childhood home. They may describe themselves as "first and foremost farmers" but behind the hotel's simple façade is a modish, avant-garde interior where urban style – cool Italian bar stools, contemporary art, walls painted in slubby greens and greys, funky headboards and lighting – mixes with antlers, squashy sofas, stoves in the bedrooms and exposed stone walls. It's a look that works because it's theirs, created by them in their own home.
And that's the point. Monachyle Mhor feels first and foremost a home, open to all, and less a hotel than a restaurant-with-rooms charging serious hotel prices. We both loved the place, its originality and its verve, but £265 is a big ask for a bedroom, however stylish, where no turndown or room service are offered. And £45 per head is a big ask for a set dinner that was acceptable, but – given its price and reputation –disappointing.
The concept (truly local ingredients, simply executed) was great, but our dishes felt as if Tom Lewis has a lot else to attend to – which indeed he does.
- Balquhidder, Lochearnhead (01877 384622; www.mhor.net) Doubles from £128 per night, including breakfast. Not suitable for guests with disabilities. Car hire: Europcar (08713 849847; www.europcar.co.uk)
Things to do: Fiona's choice
There’s a great walk from the hotel to Creag an Tuirc, Balquhidder, a high knoll that was the ancient rallying place of the Clan MacLaren. It has superb views over Balquhidder and along Loch Voil. Or walk up to the top of Monachyle Glen and look out for golden eagles. Ask the hotel about their “safaris”, on which, if you are lucky, you can see all the “big four”: golden eagle, red deer, Highland cow and red squirrel.
BEST FOR LUNCH
If you enjoy fabulously fresh seafood, the Loch Leven Seafood Café (01855 821048; www.lochlevenseafoodcafe.co.uk) at Onich is the place to go. The menu changes monthly: September’s temptations included Cumbrae rock oysters, Loch Eil mussels, roasted scallops with soy dressing and hot roasted shellfish with aioli. There’s also a shop selling live shellfish, and fresh and frozen fish for you to take home.
WHAT TO SEE
My top three are: Glen Lyon, “the longest, loveliest, loneliest glen in Scotland”; the village of Fortingall, said to be the birthplace of Pontius Pilate (www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk); and Doune Castle (www.historic-scotland.gov.uk), where Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed (the castle’s audio tour is narrated by Terry Jones).