For many, many years, Scotland – save for the major cities – has been crying out for a 21st century hotel. Most country house hotels in Scotland are either relics from the 1970s and1980s or if they have been refreshed they're still lacking in imagination with copious amounts of charmless chintz. In the rare instances where these country piles have been given a lick of paint, it’s usually reflected in an astronomical rate that is far more Cap Ferrat than rural Highlands. All this said, most of the better country house hotels in Scotland do still have very good restaurants… I wondered if Fonab could tick both the contemporary and gastronomic boxes!
Fonab’s location is very central whether you want to head south to Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews or drive up into the Highlands, you can be in most places that you’d want to visit for the day in around 100 miles and/or two hours. Being a five minute walk away – and a most pleasant walk across the loch at that – from the town of Pitlochry is an added bonus too. Fonab’s elevated position next to Loch Faskally is most picturesque, and a view that one would have to try very hard to ever tire of.
Upon arrival (the car park is very spacious for those that are particular about these things) check-in was friendly and efficient and we were then shown to our room. We had a wonderful triple (quadruple if you include the window in the bathroom!) aspect room that enjoyed that marvellous view out over the Loch. The bedroom itself was in the castle building and was very well appointed with thoughtful touches. The quality of the fixtures and fittings was excellent, with a luxurious bed that you really could “sink” into. The subtle green colour scheme was very tasteful and went well with the surroundings. The smart TV was a welcome bonus as you could watch YouTube and iPlayer (and more) on a big screen with ease. Even the six gang + double USB power socket provided on the desk was thoughtful and so much better than having phone, laptop, and ipad chargers dotted about all over the room! The bathroom was a good size, with natural light and Thierry Mugler Cologne scented toiletries were a perfect accent. Twice daily maid service was also provided, which is what one expects from top hotels, but sadly isn’t that often the case in the UK.
The public areas of the hotel are equally stylishly designed. The guest areas of the castle building comprise the fine dining restaurant (more on that later) and the original entrance hallway. At the moment this hallway houses a few tables and chairs and isn’t really anything more than a passing through area – it would be good to see something more made out of this beautiful panelled room. It probably wouldn’t make enormous sense to turn it into a small bar as the main bar is spacious enough for a small property, so perhaps a billiards table or some comfortable chairs/sofas and lots of books and magazines would work. It just needs something to give it some identity, and I am hopeful that this isn’t too tricky a task to accomplish. The fine dining restaurant is in another beautifully panelled room with tables generously spaced, and a similar colour scheme to the other rooms in both the new and castle buildings. The rest of the public areas sit in the new build wing that has lots of floor to ceiling windows and as a result is bright, very contemporary and makes the absolute most of the views over the Loch. The décor flows very well from old to new which makes the transition from the castle building into the “glass cube” structure feel very natural and seamless. The styling in the modern building has a high level of attention to detail such as the diamond lattice panelling echoing the pattern of the mirror panels that sit above it. Subtle references to nature in the form of tree bark wallpaper pillars, and a tree print on the fabrics help the whole room to sit well within the natural surroundings. A subtle tartan carpet flows throughout the ground floor areas. All in all very impressive décor, even more so as it is found in the Scottish Highlands (/Perthshire border if I am being a pedant)!
The hotel also offers a choice of two restaurants (currently the fine dining restaurant is only open on Weds-Saturday evenings) one is fine dining and the other offers freshly cooked brasserie/gastropub style cuisine. I will start with the most noticeable negative aspect that is common to both; there need to be more staff. This is an instance of not having enough staff in terms of numbers, rather than their lacking in experience; the staff are without exception very hard working and absolutely trying their best, but as a diner it was not relaxing watching the waiting staff constantly rushed off of their feet because the team is too small. In the fine dining restaurant, on both evenings, only the maître d’ was serving the entire room, and from time to time some of the restaurant staff brought the dishes in/cleared trays of empty plates away. In this style of restaurant, the maître d’ should not be having to leave the room in order that he can lavish attention on the diners. The maître d’ is extremely capable, and very charming and truly was the perfect host, but it is not good to watch him having to do the jobs of two other people as well. I can understand that as a start-up it is sensible not to employ too large a team, but now that the property has become more established, they need to bring in some more staff so that the restaurant service is slick and relaxed rather than at times like watching the final mile of a marathon!
Fortunately the food never felt rushed and virtually every dish was a joy to eat. Breakfast in the brasserie restaurant is plentiful, and the menu has plenty of choices, hot and cold, sweet and savoury to please the most discriminating diner. The menu is wide enough such that even after a week one wouldn’t tire of what was on offer. Despite being entirely a la carte, presumably to ensure consistency of the quality, it was very generous in as much as if you wanted a little more of anything it was offered to you. Starting the day with such a great breakfast with a view over the Loch really is something that is hard to beat! Dinner was equally enjoyable too, and as with the breakfast, the menu is diverse enough so that you would not become bored. The “bites” pre-starter are an excellent idea; the homemade flatbreads and hummus were superb, and the grilled baby chorizo sausages with a saffron mayonnaise were moreish! Everything was carefully cooked, and the seasoning was always spot on. Prices are at just about the right level so that even with a few drinks the whole meal feels like it has been good value.
The fine dining restaurant was a very pleasant surprise as all too often chefs can try too hard to combine unusual flavours and the whole experience generally suffers as a result. Here the flavours whilst certainly not one-dimensional did not ever feel contrived in any instance. The presentation was clean, and pretty but never too fussy. The homemade breads were delicious, although only one basket was presented at the start of the meal; I am not sure whether a single basket is the intention, but it is always nice to be offered more (that said, I am sure I would not have been refused if I had asked for more). The standout dish for me was a duck breast, perfectly cooked and served with a very refined green curry sauce bursting with fresh coriander flavour; the freshness cut through the duck which can be very rich. It was served with neat cubes of roasted butternut squash that had been coated in black and white sesame seeds; some toasted macadamia nut pieces added some further texture, although I think they might have been more effective in a finer consistency, but that is nit-picking. The vanilla parfait served with rhubarb cooked in various ways was a beautiful dish that combined various textures and flavours of that classic combination of rhubarb and custard; very satisfying indeed. The homemade mignardises were equally impressive. Complimentary mineral water and tea/coffee is a very nice touch and something that would be nice to see in more restaurants; it costs the establishment very little but really enhances the feeling of generosity for the diner. I enjoyed my first dinner there so much that I had a repeat dinner the following evening. However, it would be nice to see a slightly broader menu so that if one wanted the five course option (rather than the nine) each evening there would be more than one or two choices for each course. I am sure that its being in its nascent stage is the only reason for not expanding it at present. The matire d’ was superb, but as I have noted above, if it wants to be a serious fine dining restaurant, then there is no question that it needs more staff. Purely in terms of the level of cooking, I would say that some of the dishes were comfortably around a 1* Michelin level, and I certainly would not be surprised to see another AA rosette added at the next inspection. I truly hope that the restaurant is rewarded with the accolades that it deserves, but the kitchen can only do so much, there have to be more serving staff too!
What more can I say!? Fonab Castle is a superb property and is without question already one of Scotland’s finest boutique properties. With a modest expansion of the existing team, it would be close to being the perfect Scottish boutique hotel. I enjoyed my stay so much, that I have already booked one up for next year; I am looking forward to my return and hope to be able to experience an even more polished property and the spa will be open too!
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- Fonab Castle is a wonderful and historic building on the banks of Loch Faskally, by Pitlochry. It has been transformed by the Clark family into a fabulous and glamorous new 5 Star hotel. The hotel offers 26 bedrooms including 4 suites and a luxurious Penthouse suite (a number with loch views). The hotel brasserie and lounge provide outstanding vistas of the loch itself and Sandemans our fine dining restaurant is a tranquil setting for experiencing exquisite cuisine and fine wines. The Spa at Fonab is our brand new Spa offering a host of pampering and relaxation experiences. With Thermal Suite, Jacuzzi, swimming pool, treatment rooms and nail bar and pedicure. We look forward to welcoming you to a unique experience. ... more less
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- Also Known As:
- Fonab Castle Hotel Pitlochry, Scotland