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Restaurant on the right tracks

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When you think of rail travel what springs to mind? Do you conjure up memories of exciting journeys to exotic destinations or shudder as you remember the grind of the crowded commuter trip? Is it an age of white linen and silver service in the dining car or are you starting to get indigestion from the thought of a stale sandwich and weak tea?

I still think of rail travel positively and have some great memories of train journeys, heading south to see the sights of Edinburgh, York or London, or heading north through the awe inspiring mountain landscape of Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. On the east coast the view from the window is ever-changing as you pass towns and villages, or spectacular seascapes. Surely no-one has ever journeyed from Fort William to Mallaig and not been inspired. Yes, for me, rail travel still has a magic to it, even if the food sometimes leaves a bit to be desired.

So I was delighted to hear that a railway station on the Far North Line had opened as a restaurant. If you usually travel by car you might miss Tain as the A9 bypasses it with such efficiency. But take time to turn off and you will find a lovely town with some handsome buildings and a rich history.

The station is close to the centre, tucked down at the side of the Main Street. If you’re hungry, you will have fallen on your feet, as the station has been transformed into an exciting and vibrant-looking bistro.

Platform 1864 makes the most of its origins as a station with plenty original features, as well as some funky rail-inspired decor and paraphernalia. Yet they have avoided going over the top or running the risk of turning it into a museum or railway-theme pub. Started up by a well-known local chef, it’s already firmly rooted in the local community. Even its name was chosen by the local school.

The bar area is bright and gives customers a clear view into the kitchen at the rear, an approach I love. It always reassures me the staff are confident that they run a professional operation.

They have a good selection of beers and spirits and my partner enjoyed a glass of Schiehallion from the Harvisestoun brewery before going through to the dining area, which is a series of interconnected rooms which formed the old stationmaster’s house.

For starters he picked the Chicken Liver and Madeira Parfait. The staff were happy to substitute bread for the oatcakes on the menu and the dish came with a fresh gem lettuce salad and raspberry dressing. I struggled to make up my mind and was sorry not to try either the Haggis Bombs or the Scallops with Black Pudding and Red Onion Marmalade. But the Mulled Wine Poached Pear Salad with Strathdon Blue Cheese from the renowned local Highland Fine Cheese Dairy sounded too good to miss.

I certainly couldn’t complain about the size of the portion. My only issue was the amount of cheese slightly overwhelmed the rest of the dish. The subtlety of the mulled wine spices and the sweetness of the pear were overpowered by the big salty flavours of the mighty Strathdon Blue. But with a slight bit of tweaking this would be a great starter showcasing fantastic local produce.

For the main course, my partner chose the burger and was delighted with the well-presented dish. A very tasty burger was the verdict. My saddle of Highland venison with red cabbage, pancetta-wrapped fine beans and rowan pan jus was a plate full of big flavours. I polished off the lot and was delighted with it. Perhaps the venison could have been a little pinker but that’s more a matter of personal taste. It was exactly the sort of dish we should see in Highland restaurants.

For dessert both my pecan pie and my partner’s poached pear were served with beautiful strawberry ice cream.

There were plenty of staff in the restaurant – more staff than customers in the early evening when we first arrived – yet the service was a little patchy at times. But to be fair, it’s only recently opened and the staff were all incredibly friendly and helpful. I’m sure this will sort itself out in time.

The team behind Platform 1864 has clearly invested heavily in this new venture and they really deserve to succeed. They have made fantastic use of an unusual venue and are serving modern well-presented food which is a million miles from the microwaved fare you get in many establishments. This is certainly much more in keeping with the heyday of train travel than the rather more utilitarian experience modern travellers receive. For that reason alone I will be back.