A luxury five-star Dornoch hotel will be offering a true taste of the Highlands when its new restaurant Mara opens later this month.
An array of fine dining dishes created from sustainable produce within a 20 to 50-mile radius of the restaurant is the ethos behind Mara which will welcome its first guests through its doors in around two weeks’ time.
The country’s most northerly luxury destination, Links House at Royal Dornoch‘s new dining concept is designed to celebrate the best of Scotland’s larder, including waters, fields and forests.
In accordance with Scottish Government guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic, “A Flavour of Mara” will launch on April 26 with a limited offering, followed by the grand opening on May 17 when further restrictions are lifted.
The Links House kitchens will be led by executive chef James McDonald, who brings more than 20 years’ experience to the role.
With time spent in the Michelin-starred kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Bjorn van der Horst, as well as periods spent cooking in the Middle East, McDonald has designed a menu that celebrates the region.
“It’s been a long wait and we’re really excited, we just can’t wait until April 26 actually,” said James.
“We have everything in place, we have all of our menus ready – tasting menus, a la carte, sharing menus, it’s going to be a fun year this year for both sides.
“We have Mara in Links House and The Courtroom down in the main square at Dornoch so we are really looking forward to opening up, getting the public back in and getting the community back together.
“Golf does drive the economy through Dornoch, but the beaches are beautiful here and the scenery is amazing. It’s really quaint and that’s why people come to Dornoch.”
Translating to “sea” in Scottish Gaelic, Mara seeks to provide diners with an authentic Highland experience through a menu motivated by sustainable values and filled with local, seasonal produce.
Menu highlights include a roasted saddle of Ardgay roe deer and slow-cooked Highland Wagyu feather blade as well as a selection of Highland fine cheeses.
And diners wishing to enjoy the restaurant’s signature seven-course tasting experience will see a donation made on their behalf to Glen Affric’s Trees for Life Project.
James continued: “The ethos of setting Mara up is to use produce from a 20 to 50 mile radius.
“Bonnar Bridge is where we are getting all of our game from, Golspie is where our butcher is. They are all 15 or 20 miles away from our restaurant. We are putting polytunnels in on our owner Todd Warnock’s land so we can be self-sufficient by having our own vegetables and growing our own vegetables.”
Some of that produce comes from local growers who, says James, are producing some incredibly tasty vegetables.
“The potatoes and neeps we get from local people are awesome and we are using things that are coming from people in the community who want to sell to us.
Heart and soul
“We have people who want to sell us mushrooms during the foraging season. It’s amazing, it’s like every chef’s dream.
“I cut my teeth in London and we all talk about local seasonality, but here we are putting our heart and soul into Mara. It’s all about good local produce.
“When you drive from Golspie to Dornoch you drive past where a lady who gives us the duck eggs for breakfast lives. You literally drive down the A9 and you are like: ‘We buy from you, we buy from you, we buy from you!”
Food and beverage manager Duncan Walker says that offering the best service and food is what drives a talented team.
“As much as possible we are trying to be as self-sufficient as we possibly can. The ethos of what we are doing here is that we want to offer the very best that we can.
“Both James and myself, we have our skill sets and we want to be at the top of our game. Because of where we are we are not catering for a specific set of people we are just trying to do the very best we can – and feed people!”
Dining at Mara will see an a la carte menu also be on offer, alongside tasting flights, matched wines, cocktails and soft beverages.
For those wishing to enjoy a more hands-on approach to fine dining, Mara will also be serving a showstopping sharing menu featuring whole Portmahomack lobsters, platters of Orkney scallops, Maorach Beag oysters and even two bone ribs of Highland beef.
James said: “The range of menus we are going to be having is really going to be pushing the team and it is going to be pretty heavy for a small restaurant. For dinner, for instance, we have a la carte, five-course tasting menu, a seven-course tasting menu and a sharing menu.
“But before you have all that you have our canapes and we settle you in with an aperitif.
“We will be also offering afternoon tea between Wednesdays and Saturdays which is nice and cosy – bone China, Victorian plates, Georgian plates. We will be doing all our own home bakes, lovely sandwiches, little sausage rolls, the things that people want to eat for afternoon tea.
“We will offer a Mara brunch, too. We haven’t come up with a name for it yet but it will be lunch on the first Sunday of every month beginning with a sharing-style starter where lots of things come out and you get your pick of that, then you choose your main course and the trolley will come out with the dessert. It will be great fun.”
Flying the flag for fine dining in the north of Scotland is the aim for everyone at Mara as they get ready to reveal their art to the public. Dishes will include elements grown on-site and foraged nearby.
“We want to try being a flagship of the Highlands. We have invested in great chefs, great front of house as well,” said James.
“What Duncan brings to the team front of house is amazing and we follow it up with the food. It’s going to be a really good year.
“We did a tasting for a very high-end client and I needed some wild garlic so Duncan picked it for me when he went on his morning run,” laughed James.
The addition of Mara at Links House, originally the manse for the Free Church of Scotland, allows the team to further expand upon the culinary offerings of the boutique hotel, which currently operates The Courtroom restaurant in the centre of Dornoch.
Duncan added: “Links House has been operating around seven or eight years and last year was going to be the launch of Mara but it got put back and we decided to launch Mara when it was good to go.”
As well as the food offering, front of house has a key role to play in making people’s experience an unforgettable one, with an opportunity to enjoy some fine wines along the way.
“We are the face of the kitchen in a lot of ways,” continued Duncan. “We are quite lucky here we are not seasonal staff. We are working with the same restaurant manager who has been here for four years now.
“The tasting menu will be a chance to show off some of the more unusual wines that I have tried over the years that wouldn’t necessarily sell themselves.
“And where possible we like to find a connection with the people who make it. There is a Scottish master of winemaking, making chardonnay in Adelaide, where we can bring in a Scottish connection we will, so we have one from Elgin in South Africa. We can’t really do local wine of course, but where we can celebrate great producers we will.
“The list is based on classics, we have an extensive cellar with some very old wines and I am just bringing a bit of dazzle to it as well.”
As he looks ahead to an anticipated busy kitchen service, James says everyone at Mara will be at the top of their game.
He added: “The ethos comes from the top as well. It comes from Todd, our owner, general manager Phil (Scott ). We all speak the same language, we love our jobs, we love what we do and we want to serve people and do it well.
“Phil had that vision and it came from Todd and it filters down. Everyone has the same ethos.”
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