IS IT a good or bad luck to be at the only inn in the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park on a night when there is a supermoon? There is probably no better place to see the moon, which was due to be eclipsed during the night, but such a bright celestial body makes it difficult to see any stars, which is what a designated Dark Sky Park is all about.
Anyway, by coincidence rather than design, last weekend we found ourselves heading for House O’ Hill Hotel, a few miles north of Newton Stewart. We had been at the Wigtown Book Festival and a day of attending lectures and talks had left us sated intellectually, but hungry for calories.
As well as the husband, we had my teenage daughter, Lizzie, and her friend Rowan in tow; the youngsters of our party are two of the most impressive eaters I’ve ever encountered, so well able to put any establishment to the test.
Even by the standards of Dumfries and Galloway, House O’ Hill Restaurant is in an out of the way place. Housed in a whitewashed cottage off a minor road, the lack of streetlights or surrounding buildings mean that it must act as a beacon to passing travellers. As the Galloway Forest Park is a popular place for serious walkers and cyclists – four of the famous 7Stanes mountain bike trails are nearby – there must be many who cosmic order a place like this at the end of the day.
The husband, who had his mind set on a pint, was delighted when he saw the real ales on tap and had a delicious Ayrshire-brewed pale ale – Leezie Lundie – in his hand within two minutes of walking in.
The room is a modern take on a Scottish pub, with wooden floors and tables, a wood-burning stove and a small bar area. It was full of diners, despite it being a Sunday evening in a place very much off the beaten track. It might have been the Wigtown effect, but I don’t think so.
Thirst quenched, we ordered a couple of starters to share between four, wanting to save ourselves for the mains. The seafood platter was a delight, a retro prawn cocktail on a bed of mixed leaves topped with a large crevette, with smoked mussels, a rollmop cut through with sweet pickled onions and little Kilner jar of smoked trout rillette with thickly buttered homemade bread. It would have been a very generous portion for one, but was dispatched within seconds between four.
Oriental pork belly manifested as deliciously crisp and salty slices of belly and crackling with a Thai dipping sauce – the sort of dish which you wake up thinking about for months afterwards.
For the mains, Rowan, a non-dairy eater, had the local wild venison braised in red wine with beetroot, and new potatoes. The deep red colour of the dish attested to the high proportion of beetroot – for me too high – but the meat was meltingly tender and tasty.
Lizzie went for the hanger steak, a cut of meat we aren’t familiar with but the waitress enthused about it. It is also known as the butcher’s steak, as it was often kept for his tea rather than being sold, and has to be cooked medium rare. You can see why a butcher would nab it for himself. It looks like a mini fillet, a long thin cut, sliced into medallions and cooked to a turn; tender and intensely beefy. Accompanied by a stack of chips, roasted tomatoes and salad, she chose a peppercorn sauce which was being scraped off an empty plate in record time.
My choice was a special of the day, confit of duck in a shallot, pea and lettuce sauce, with potatoes. The duck leg, having been slow cooked in oil, was encased in a crisp salty skin with butter-tender meat underneath. The sauce could have done with more reduction for my taste but it was a great dish and a generous portion.
The husband also opted for a special; Dover sole in a lemon and butter sauce, which again was generous; two fish on the bone, delicately cooked and flavoured, it quickly became his favourite meal of the year so far.
With adults stuffed but kids undefeated, Rowan got her chocolate brownie while Lizzie tucked into a cheeseboard with grapes and chutney.
The food here is great; just experimental enough to know they are good but not faddy, and with local ingredients. The presentation, arranged beautifully on slate platters with sauces in separate jugs is just trendy enough to let you know they are keeping up, without being annoying. And the service is excellent; friendly, relaxed and efficient. Our total bill for dinner for four, including drinks, came to £130.
They offer rooms too and, as we exited, we promised ourselves we’d be back for an overnighter. Imagine what they do for breakfast?
ALSO ON THE MENU
As well as soup and sandwich lunches, they also offer a Sunday roast and by the look of the steaming plates passing us piled high with homemade Yorkshire puds they would be worth trying, preferably after a long walk. They look good value too, with three courses for £17.95 including starters of soup, paté and whitebait, a choice of roast and desserts such as sticky toffee pudding.
Main courses £9.95-£19.95
Puddings £4.45-£5.45 Cheeseboard £6.95