“We’re like those idiots on Grand Designs who turn up and say, we'll just re-decorate and it’ll be fine,” says chef Tom Tsappis, who has taken over Killiecrankie House with his partner, Matilda Ruffle. “We came here, went straight into lockdown and didn't know anyone. It got very cold quickly. And the ceiling caved in”.
It’s fair to say that this thirty-something couple, who left their London jobs in finance and advertising last year and are also getting married this month, don’t do things by halves.
After getting the keys for this property, back in November 2020, they found that the 19th-century building needed a lot more work than anticipated.
“We started peeling the wallpaper off, and realised there was no wall behind it,” says Tsappis, who ran supper club, Elia London, with Ruffle for two years. “I don't think anyone quite understood, least of all ourselves, the state of the building. So that was a bit of a shock”.
They’ve ploughed ahead, in order to get things ready for the end of September, when they plan to open their restaurant with rooms.
“We’ve taken bookings and put the pressure on the builders,” says Tsappis. “They're in a right panic and everyone's very moody at the moment because the deadline is looming”.
There’s plenty to do, as this Perth and Kinross venue will be no ordinary countryside bolthole.
The couple - who cite Mugaritz and The Fat Duck as a couple of their favourite restaurants - will be offering a set tasting menu of 15 courses. It will be served to just 18 covers each evening, Wednesday to Saturday. Dishes will come out of their open kitchen, and be presented to all diners at the same time, so there are no spoilers.
“The way we've always served people is that everybody eats together,” says Tsappis, who says he’s the chef and Ruffle is the sommelier and “everything else”. “That creates an ambience that you otherwise don't get, because if the table next to you is two courses ahead, you know what's coming”.
The menu, which costs £85 (add an additional £65 for a drinks pairing) or £450 including bed and breakfast accommodation in one of their five rooms, features conceptual takes on traditional Scottish creations. However, unless you count the haggis-infused vodka that may be served at their bar, there will be nothing quite as obvious as our national dish.
“Some of the options are inspired by anecdotes. So, for example, one of the dishes is called fried porridge”, says Ruffle, who is originally from Fife. “It’s based on the tradition of a porridge drawer and those who used to fry their slice in dripping. The texture is half polenta and half bread and butter pudding and it tastes intensely of beef.”
This dish, which resembles a sea anemone, is made from porridge oats, braised Highland wagyu tail, beef stock, caramelised onion cream, pickled onion, chive and wild garlic flowers. Other courses include chicken-leek-a-masala and their fantastical take on a Scotch egg, which features a roasted cauliflower and maple syrup mousse, toasted seaweed, whisky-washed trout roe and a slow-cooked egg, as well as a dramatically coal black dish of Moray Firth squid cooked in ink, confit fennel and capers; and a burnt oyster with Glenmorangie hollandaise.
“The last course on the tasting menu is a sort of riff on classic Scottish sweeties”, says Tsappis. “There are things based on Irn-Bru and a Tunnock’s Tea Cake. We’ll also have a macaroon macaron.”
For those who love double carbs, the cheese course is inspired by macaroni pie.
Drinks will be served from their Art Deco bar, which seats six, and also services the lounge area.
They’ll be using local produce for all these dishes (and drinks), and many of their ingredients will be sourced from their own garden, which has also undergone a major transformation.
“We’re on a plot that’s just over four acres, two of which is woodland, then the rest is our kitchen garden”, says Tsappis. “It’s my labour of love. We've got a 14-metre polytunnel, 15-foot greenhouse and a six-metre fruit cage for berries. We're putting a smokehouse in so we can smoke our own salmon for breakfast. The rest is beds and a small orchard area. We've also got these rose arches, so that we can harvest the flowers for rosewater”.
You wonder what locals think of this enthusiastic and energetic young couple, their ambitious menu and the changes they’re making. After all, this place was an institution when it was owned by hotelier Henrietta Fergusson, who sadly died in October 2020.
The couple say that Killiecrankie residents were especially keen for the bar to remain open, since there’s no other pub within walking distance of the village. As long as they could ensure that it remained, they’re very happy about the new owners.
“They’re quite excited, because I suppose we are another reason for people to come and stay here,” says Tsappis. “One of our neighbours said to us that it keeps the area alive”.
Although this destination sounds like it could be rather formal, since tasting menus are traditionally rather stiff and starchy, the couple point out that it’ll be a relaxed space. They describe it as “comfortable luxury”, with mid-century modern furniture, exposed stone and wood.
“We're not fancy or formal people. There won't be any white tablecloths,” says Tsappis. “This is our home, we live here, so it’s a bit like inviting you to our house for dinner. You can sit and have a drink by the fire, and there's a record player if you want to put some music on. You can enjoy yourself. Come and have a nice meal”.