You can’t have a luxury hotel without a great restaurant anymore.
Gone are the days when there were either five-star fine-dining destinations, the full Fawlty Towers experience, or something rather average in between.
Next month, the new 84-room Marine North Berwick will be opening.
This 19th-century venue is now owned by the US-based Marine & Lawn Hotels and Resorts, as are another couple of Scottish coastal golf destinations - the newly transformed and soon-to-open Rusacks St Andrews and next year’s opening, the Marine Troon.
For the East Lothian hotel, which will also have a spa, they’ve announced Masterchef: The Professionals 2017 contestant, Chris Niven, 37, as their executive chef. (Rusacks St Andrews has Derek Johnstone, another telly show alumni, who won the inaugural competition way back in 2008).
“Hotels can't get away with not having good restaurants these days. It would be crazy not to focus on it, because the room is beautiful and the views are amazing”, says Chris, who has worked at The Adamson in St Andrews, The Printing Press, and The Scotsman Grand Cafe and Bar, both in Edinburgh, among other Scottish venues.
At the four-star Marine North Berwick, the Lawn Restaurant and its Bass Rock Bar look straight out onto The North Berwick Golf Course’s West Links, the Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock and the beach. It’s a prime spot, and Chris bagged the job here after an intense process that was almost as scary as squaring up to John and Gregg.
“That was a bit of a gruelling interview, as I had to travel down to London to do cook-offs”, says Chris, who is based in Falkland, Fife, with his wife, Suzie, and five-year-old daughter, Piper. “I was cooking for six people and I had to do a three course meal - two starters, two mains and one dessert”.
It turned out that his interviewers were so wowed by these dishes that they ended up going straight onto the a la carte menu at the new hotel, which was formerly the Macdonald Marine (a very decent hotel, but not nearly as swanky as what’s in the pipeline).
“I cooked them halibut and they really loved that,” says Chris. “It’s topped by a crumb made from chicken skin and pine nuts with a little bit of dill and lemon zest. We serve that with a roast chicken butter sauce, as well as dried Mara Seaweed to add a bit more flavour, brown shrimps, and a piece of chargrilled compressed cucumber”.
It was the same interview-to-menu process for his take on Paddington’s favourite piece - the marmalade sandwich. His upmarket version features a marmalade parfait, whisky sour jelly, vanilla shortbread, mandarin gel and fresh orange.
The desserts will definitely not be an afterthought, as one of the most unusual dishes is a hay-infused rice pudding - “the hay gives it a malty flavour” - with strawberries and their jus. “I wanted the dishes to be familiar but with a playful twist,” says the chef.
The restaurant will also offer all-day dining, afternoon tea and they hope to make the most of their Sunday lunch service.
When it comes to designing the hotel’s menus, his new employers have pretty much given him free reign, though they were rigid on some aspects.
“They’ve been really good and given me direction,” he says. “It has to be Scottish local produce and absolutely seasonal - we’ll be changing the menus a lot. What they didn’t want was someone to do lots of purees and gels and tuilles and foams. They want really simple food, letting amazing local produce do the talking”.
This suits Chris, whose cooking style has evolved since his time on the telly.
“When I was younger, it was about what I could add to a dish but now I ask what I can take away, but still make it amazing”, he says. “The presentation with the new menu is simpler than I’ve done before, as I want to showcase the product, not cover it up”.
They will be supplied by Welch Fishmonger, Gigha Halibut, Dunbar’s Belhaven Smokehouse, Phantassie Organics, Gilmour Butchers and Castle Game for meat, among many others.
The look of the restaurant and bar, which has a focus on cocktails, craft beers and whisky, suits its menu and location.
In the restaurant, they’ve restored the original features of the Victorian property and added lots of fixed seating, including semi-enclosed banquettes, a checked floor and low lighting so that the space doesn’t compete with the blue sea and sky outside. They’ve gone a bit wilder in the bar, which features out-sized twinkly chandeliers. They’re not made from Perspex. Everything looks expensive.
“They’ve spent a lot of money and have not been scrimping”, says Chris. “They want to be known as one of the best hotels in Scotland, competing with the likes of The Balmoral and Gleneagles. When you come in, it’ll be unrecognisable”.
This luxurious space will soon be part of a rich East Lothian dining scene. There’s the Bonnie Badger and Greywalls in Gullane, and North Berwick and its surrounds has plenty of stalwarts, including places like Drift, who have just upped their food offering. Chris is still discovering the area (with the help of Johnstone, who lives nearby), but hopes to move through in a few months' time.
For now, his energy is geared towards this summer’s big reveal.
Marine North Berwick is due to open in mid-July, for more information, see www.marineandlawn.com