Falkirk, Stirling, Cumbernauld. “The Bermuda triangle of haute cuisine,” remarked a friend upon hearing of the challenge that lay ahead. It’s a harsh but not an entirely unrecognisable assessment.
One of the many beauties of Stirlingshire is that much of this area is within easy reach of both Edinburgh and Glasgow. It’s not easy to make a classy restaurant viable when the temptations of the bright lights draw so many towards the big cities and all the variety they can offer. There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between.
"Credit must go where it is due, the beef was cooked perfectly."
Glenskirlie House & Castle, at Banknock, just off the M80 from Stirling to Glasgow, is one that survives and thrives.
This castle is not your typical fortification, it has to be said. This area is steeped in history, with the Antonine Wall running nearby, and it’s not far to the site of the Battle of Kilsyth, where the Marquess of Montrose defeated the Covenanters in 1645.
Near there can be found the remains of Kilsyth Castle, destroyed by Cromwell, and Colzium Castle, which was demolished by the 3rd Viscount of Kilsyth.
And then there is Glenskirlie – a new-build 15-bedroom “boutique castle” constructed in 2007 (motte and bailey not required).
The castle, now a well-established wedding venue, has been built on the success of the adjacent Glenskirlie House Restaurant, opened in 1982 and now accompanied by the less formal Grill. The latter offers a “quirky, comfortable atmosphere”, which is fair comment. The dining area is warm and welcoming but the décor defies style, despite trying very hard. Too hard, in fact. One person’s “quirky” can be another person’s “dodgy”.
The Grill menu does not pretend to match the fine dining available in the Restaurant, but as well as the expected steak/chicken/beefburger fare, there are a handful of dishes which take the overall offering beyond the norm, such as seared hand-dived scallops with lemon and garlic emulsion, caviar, wilted baby leek and a smoked haddock boudin (£9.95).
Even though it was a quiet night, this starter seemed to arrive remarkably swiftly, an impression reinforced when it became apparent that the scallops were underdone, spoiling what on presentation alone had promised to live up to expectations.
Meanwhile, a Mull cheddar and apple soufflé (£6.25) presented quite a contrast; it looked a mess yet was full of flavour, even if the accompanying curry and sultana mayonnaise left little to the imagination.
It would be wrong to visit a grill without sampling one of the headline items, where an 8oz fillet steak vies for attention with a 16oz T-bone. The fillet was given the nod, and credit must go where it is due – the beef was cooked perfectly.
Its peppercorn sauce came as a surprise, however, fused with tomato when traditional style (brown, for a start) would have been sufficient. A portion of hand-cut chips along with traditional garnishes added to the informal vibe, and any lingering question over whether this was or wasn’t fine dining was settled once and for all when a plastic bottle of Sarsons was plonked on the table. Cheap and cheerful isn’t a crime, but at £23.90, this experience missed the first part of that bargain.
Aside from the charcoal grill, the “favourites” section of the menu has three main highlights; duck, venison and halibut. Each looked a solid enough choice, with halibut arguably the most intriguing – pan fried with smoked pomme purée, roasted vegetables and a champagne, chive and crayfish velouté (£19.90). The halibut was medium firm and its mild flavour worked well with the velouté, although this combination was overwhelmed by a relatively mountainous serving of pomme purée.
The biggest disappointment was the dessert menu. Here it is in full: snowball sundae, sticky toffee pudding, torte or cheesecake. Uninspired? Me too. The sundae (£5.70) was passable but average, and an undistinguished end to the meal. A small selection of tasters is also available (starting at £1.90), and this appeared worth taking a chance on, but it could not make up for the limitation of the menu.
On the plus side, the Grill is a pleasure to walk into on a cold night, the staff are friendly and attentive, and you would have to go some distance to find better prepared food.
Trouble is, the lack of competition is the main reason why the Grill stands out in this part of the world, and people are prepared to go the extra distance, east or west, in search of more variety and originality – and one of those places even offers a not-so-new-build castle.
ALSO ON THE MENU
As well as the traditional selection of charcoal grill offerings, there are 10 “favourites” to choose from at dinner: risotto, duck, tagliatelle, chicken, venison, liver and onions, Glenskirlie salad (aka house salad), halibut, Glenskirlie’s homemade steak pie (“in special Glenskirlie gravy”) and haddock. All are fairly self-explanatory.
It’s also worth considering dinner at the adjoining Restaurant, which offers à la carte as well as a market menu (£29.99 for three courses).
The à la carte menu is not extensive, with five starters, five mains and five desserts, but the market menu offers four further options in each category. A word of warning for vegetarians – there is nothing for you on the à la carte menu, and only one starter and one main course on the market menu, unless the soup of the day turns out to be vegetarian. However, the overall dining experience does look high class, and a distinct step up from next door at the Grill.
Main courses £10.90-£23.90
Puddings £1.90 (taster) to £5.70