Haggis has probably done more damage to Scotland’s culinary reputation than either deserves. But to dismiss a country for a single dish is poppycock. Gastronomes and intrepid travelers have long been aware that the country’s food and drink scene transcends offal (though even haggis is staging a comeback), but a crop of well-established restaurants is beating the drum loudly these days and drawing attention to the copious pantry of the Scottish moors.
Each year, Edinburgh’s gentrifying coastal district, Leith, seems to add another Michelin star to its roster. Farm-to-table eateries like Martin Wishart and Plumed Horse (with a star each) are booked out for weeks at a time. But the crown jewel remains The Kitchin. It was, after all, Tom Kitchin and his wife Michaela who forged the way for food and wine excellence in Edinburgh back in 2006, when they opened their auspiciously eponymously named restaurant Kitchin. And it’s no surprise that a reservation here is still the most coveted in the capital. Chef Kitchin is emphatic about the provenance of his ingredients, so much so that he actually presents you with a map of Scotland that details where they are from: scallops from the Orkney Isles; mushrooms and berries from around Pitlochry; langoustines
and winkles pulled from the waters near Mull. His small tableside geography lesson adds a delightful dimension to the land and sea menu that features dozens of bright, tangy sauces to accompany a seemingly endless supply of lamb, venison, and razor clams that find their way to the table. The restaurant’s interior—a long sunken dining room and glass– enclosed, quay-facing bar and lounge—was revamped this year in shades of dark green and heather, and Tim and his wife are releasing before Christmas their second cookbook, Kitchin Suppers, in the U.S.
To visit Scotland and only see its cities is to miss the point. A good place to begin is Oban, the gateway to the Scottish Isles, three hours from Glasgow by train. Today its name is inseparable with the nearly 300-year-old Oban Scotch whisky distillery that sits on the port in the middle of town. There is a busy harbor where yachts are moored in pretty rows, and ferries chug in and out, shuttling people between islands. The Oban distillery is the town’s main attraction, and the £7 tours explaining how barley becomes golden scotch are fascinating. You could spend half a day here learning about Oban’s tasting notes; the 18-year-old is mildly smokey, and tastes of orange peels and honey. Better yet, stick around the gift shop and sample some of the vintages at the distillery’s tasting room. Then stumble five minutes uphill to Dungallan Country House, a small B&B tucked away in woodland overlooking Oban Bay. The Victorian stone house recalls a tiny castle, and its owners, Mike and Marion Stevenson-Coates, who entertain behind their bar, make the stay here worth every cent.
A five–hour drive north brings you to the sparsely populated Isle of Skye where a well of gastronomical talent exists in a setting that recalls Avatar but with kilts. Much like Oban, the Talisker distillery is a big draw with its How It’s Made tour, chased by a tasting of rare vintages. This year, the company is releasing its 35-year-old vintage single malt. There’s a good selection of hotels and private cottage rentals on Skye, but the finest of the lot is Kinloch Lodge. Each room has a beautiful view of the serene private lake, and you can attend one of Claire Macdonald’s famous cooking classes. Macdonald is an award–winning self-taught cook and food writer who teaches wildly popular quintessential Scottish cooking at the lodge. If her classes are booked, try Marcello Tully’s tasting menu at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s like a tour of the island: soft lamb, sweet langoustines, and the freshest vegetables, all found close to home and paired with tipples like Bollinger Special Cuvée. There’s not a wee bit o’ haggis in sight.