Having never visited Islay before 2020, I’ve now found myself on the island three times this year - and loved every minute.
It’s usually whisky that’s taken me there, and I was delighted that we got to record episodes of Scran, the Scotsman’s food and drink podcast, at the return of Feis Ile this year.
While smoky single malts may be the first thing that springs to most minds when Islay is mentioned, it’s also a haven for those looking to enjoy outdoor pursuits, scenic walks and good food.
If you’re staying at The Machrie, you may also be there for golf (it has a newly renovated Championship course) but if you’re not, it’s worth a visit for food or a cocktail at the bar.
The Machrie has one restaurant - 18 - where guests can tuck into breakfast, lunch and dinner. With large floor to ceiling windows overlooking the 18th green and down to the beach, it’s a treat on a sunny day.
Pre-dinner drinks on the restaurant balcony in the late afternoon sun was almost like being abroad. Sadly for our visit, this wasn’t possible as it was a, dark and b, blowing a hoolie.
We’d booked for dinner in early November, a slightly quieter time in terms of tourism but still a good chance to see Islay’s rugged beauty (and enjoy a dram or two).
Seafood and local meat are at the heart of the menu, which can include Islay Ales battered haddock, Gigha halibut, Islay scallops and Octomore farm beef.
Of the menu, the team say: “The menus are locally sourced, where possible, and celebrate the very best Scotland has to offer from the land, the sea and the air.
"Across land, sea and air, Islay is brimming with local ingredients, ranging from seafood and game to freshly grown vegetables and herbs. So much of the produce we source is free-range and from small-scale farmers and suppliers on Islay in a bid to reduce food air miles, whilst supporting artisan businesses that ecologically manage the land.”
After a refreshing Machrie gin and tonic (the hotel released a namesake gin last year, in partnership with Isle of Islay Gin), we decided on our meal for the evening.
A late ferry crossing meant the kitchen was closing, but the staff couldn’t have been more accommodating. It’s never easy picking a three course meal quickly, but it was even harder when faced with what was on the compact menu here.
I opted for a starter of nugget of monkfish (£12), while my dining partner went for the goat’s cheese and beetroot starter (£10).
The meaty monkfish was surrounded by a deep orange, mild yet earthy curry sauce, made slightly sweet with the addition of mango. The tight, meatiness of the fish, which is a lot like lobster, held its own in this complex sauce, making this an excellent start to the meal.
On top of the fish, there were small pearls of roast red pepper coulis, ready to burst in a pop of flavour. The goat's cheese was whipped and very light, served with watercress and beautifully cooked, fresh beetroot.
I continued my meal with another fish dish - a fillet of seabass (£28), while it was chicken for my companion (£30).
The fish, served crispy skin side up, was on top of a cloud of pea risotto, and next to dark green leaves of Swiss chard. A small Islay fish cake, deeply golden and crispy, could have been mistaken for a mini scotch egg, on the side.
If the monkfish is the meat of the sea, seabass is surely the veg with its flaky, light taste and texture. It lends itself to other, lighter flavours, which the risotto (which had an almost sticky rice texture) had.
The chard added some bitterness to what could have been too sweet a main course. But it was the mini fish cake that stole the show - bursting with creaminess - it deserves its own place on the menu.
Across the table, the chicken supreme was complemented by a crisp and rich black haggis croquette all served with charred leeks and spinach puree for some greenery. A modern take on a classic Scottish dish.
For dessert we’d panicked and chose to share the gin parfait (£7), which was served with a mouth puckeringly tart lemon sorbet (which was my highlight of this dish), two chocolate wafer sticks and drizzled with raspberry coulis.
The slab or parfait was creamy and sweet, lacking a bit in flavour to my taste, but pleasant when all parts were combined.
While we couldn’t enjoy the sunset from the terrace, it was the perfect time of year to retire to the Stag Lounge for a dram by the roaring fire. Try their old fashioned, it’s delicious and an ideal way to end the evening.