THEY say the art of good service is dying, but I’ve found a place where they serve it in dollops – with cream on top, for good measure.
I’m talking about the Craighaar Hotel, on the outskirts of Aberdeen, where we enjoyed an object lesson in good service matched by excellent food and surroundings.
Let me tell you about the service first. In reception, a friendly young man directed us into the lounge bar for a pre-dinner drink. We were welcomed by an equally friendly member of staff who inquired if we had booked for dinner. She then invited us to relax with a drink in the lounge and someone would bring the menus.
A couple of minutes later, a friendly and helpful waitress was by our side with the menus. She left us to our own devices for a few minutes before taking our orders. The barman came across to check we were OK and took another drink order before the waitress returned to lead us through to our table in the dining-room across a corridor.
The waiting staff were lined up outside the dining-room as if we were visiting royals.
Our starters were with us almost as soon as we sat down and, throughout the rest of our visit, the cheerful staff were quick and attentive. As we left, we told a woman who looked as though she was in charge about the things we had enjoyed.
She seemed to take a genuine interest in our “feedback”, as she described it, and I got the feeling, judging by the seriousness with which they treated the service, that it would be fed back down the line. The £86 we paid, including drinks, was money well spent for something special.
Craighaar sits just off the road to Dyce from Aberdeen and a short distance from the city’s airport. It’s an eye-catching building, with a block which runs at right angles from the main section and sits on concrete pillars.
Another eye-catching feature is the lounge bar I mentioned earlier. I said to my wife that if I had to design my perfect bar it would be something like this: the walls were encased in elegant wooden panels, with a similar low ceiling and ornate beams. An open fire was in the centre and the attractive bar had frosted glass panels. It reminded me of an elegant old gentlemen’s club. My wife thought it was more like the interior of a 19th-century warship. Anyway, it is the sort of place you don’t want to leave once you get comfortable.
Into the dining-room and the contrast could not be greater with what, to me, had an Oriental feel to it, with intimate small dining cubicles, separated by shutters, down one side. There were more open areas, too, for larger dining groups, and it was all very elegant with soft lighting.
Our starters were a striking combination, and it was worth pausing just admire them. I chose fresh seafood pot, which was served in an attractive small black pot with a lid. It opened to reveal a wonderful concoction bound by a rich thermidor sauce, with salmon, smoked haddock, prawns and mussels. Even my wife, not a great fish lover, had a taste and really liked it. It was satisfying and very popular – I saw several heading to other tables.
My wife’s warm Barbary duck, with five thick breast slices arranged in a star shape, was also beautifully presented. They rested on lettuce leaves, with an orange and chicory salad and ginger dressing. It was very succulent and we agreed that both starters were impressive.
For mains, my wife went for the whopper on the steak menu – a 16oz T-bone – which was good because I knew I would get some of it. Juicy and tender, with a butter-filled jacket potato, it was a great choice.
From the king of meats, we cross the table to the other side of the tracks for my choice – braised ox cheeks. Yes, ox cheeks – they are all the rage again as unusual, cheaper cuts become fashionable.
In presentation, I could not fault it: it was set in a large round bowl-shaped plate – similar to a casserole or stew. Small chunks of meat filled the bowl with a gloriously rich and tasty port and red-wine gravy flavoured with herbs and vegetables. The crowning glory was Dauphinoise potatoes – creamy slices encased in carrot puree – sitting on a bed of red cabbage, which sat in the centre of the dish and offered wonderful contrasting flavours.
My only quibble was with the inconsistency of the meat. In texture, it reminded me of liver, but the chunks varied from over-chewy to melt-in-the-mouth, with stringy in between.
A curious mixture, but this does come from the pot-roast family of dishes which need a long, slow cook. On this occasion, I felt they did not quite pull it off, but it was one mighty dish on overall taste and presentation and I would hate to mark it down because of all the loving effort that had gone into it.
We rounded off with a banoffee and an orange chocolate cheesecake, which were a knockout. I won’t describe them here – go see for yourselves.
Craighaar Hotel, Waterton Road, Bucksburn, Aberdeen. Phone 01224 712275.