Not only does the kitchen at Knockinaam hold a Michelin star, but it has the distinction of having done so for longer than any other restaurant in Scotland – and that’s over 20 years. But whilst the food here was excellent on both evenings of my two night stay, it is only one of this unique country house hotel’s many and varied charms.
Sitting a few miles from the village of Portpatrick in Southwest Scotland, Knockinaam is reached down a winding driveway that suddenly opens out to a spectacular setting: the house sits in splendid isolation on its own private bay, the garden running down to a sandy beach with views to Northern Ireland on the horizon. It is utterly private and utterly magical. It is also perfect for beach combing, with the salty lick of the Atlantic wind proving wonderfully invigorating. As darkness falls the twinkling lights of Belfast are visible from the dining room.
This beautiful location played a vital part in one of the most remarkable events in Knockinaam’s history, when Churchill and Roosevelt met here under a cloak of war-time secrecy to plan the D-Day landings. The house still has an air of romance and nostalgia about it, but owners David and Sian Ibbotson have done a wonderful job of retaining that whilst delivering all the modern conveniences required by today’s travellers. Those include timeless, comfortable decor in the rooms, flat screen TVs and wireless Internet. Our spacious room in relaxing shades of cream, gold and terracotta had beautiful views from its king-size bed to the sea and an indulgently large bathroom with deep bath and walk-in shower, copious hot water and luxury toiletries.
With only 10 luxury suites, Knockinaam is exclusive but it is not pretentious. It instils a feeling of homely relaxation from the moment you approach via its winding driveway. Once checked in, a stack of daily newspapers invites you to sit in the comfortable lounge sipping coffee and nibbling shortbread for at least part of your day, whilst there’s plenty to do in the surrounding area. We enjoyed a very good, simple pub lunch in the Port Logan Inn, just a few miles along the coast, and a bracing walk on the first few kilometres at least of the Southern Upland Way, which begins in the pretty town of Portpatrick. There are numerous National Trust gardens and properties in the surrounding area too.
Local boy Tony Pierce took over the helm in the kitchen in 1994 and has held his Michelin star ever since. A large kitchen garden produces much of the restaurant’s herbs and vegetables, and local produce features prominently. Knockinaam offer only a set menu (though dietary requirements can be catered for) and above all else this is precise and very refined cooking with portions that are satisfying without ever being heavy – essential if you are going to dine here on three or four consecutive nights. Flavours are distinctive yet subtle.
Really, the kitchen did not put a foot wrong over our two nights. Highlights included a perfect little roast fillet of line-caught sea bass with a potato crust and beurre noisette. The delicacy of the fish was matched by the delicacy of the crust, just adding a faint textural crunch and extra element of buttery flavour. Little soups are served between starter and main, my favourite being a frothy “cappuccino” of pea, pear and mint, where the sweet fleshy bite of little cubes of pear added an unexpected dimension. Local ingredients took centre stage for the main course on both nights, and cannon of Galloway lamb with a shallot puree was wonderful, but then I loved the playful accompaniments to the paupiettes of roast free-range chicken and seasonal green asparagus; a garlic mousse and little garlic beignets. We shared the excellent cheese plate on both evenings before pud: hot passionfruit soufflé with its own sorbet was outstanding, but then a warm and gooey chocolate soufflé pudding with sour cherry ice cream would win many fans too.
The lovely thing about staying for a couple of nights in such a place is that the entire wine list opens up for you too: even if you don’t feel like a whole bottle of red to finish that cheese or bottle of dessert wine to accompany dessert, the restaurant will happily hold on to what you do not drink for tomorrow. And the list here is good, with 450 bins running from house wines at £22, to many vintages of top growths. Prices will delight those looking to splash out towards the top of the list: 1978 Château Lafite at £495 is retail price, whilst less mainstream choices show a keen wine interest. We enjoyed the Pintas Character from the Douro for £57 amongst others.
The low down
Tucked in this remote but beautiful little corner of Scotland, with its beguiling setting, high levels of comfort and service and Michelin-starred refinement, Knockinaam does not come cheap. In season, suites start at around £350 per night including dinner for two people, though longer stays see lower daily rates and there are some out of season bargains to be found. I can imagine the magic of Knockinaam would weave its spell whatever the season.
Dumfries and Galloway
Tel: +44 (0)1776 810471