Great Places to Eat in Scotland
- Howgate Bar and Restaurant, Howgate, Midlothian
Taking a trip out of town always adds a sense of occasion and adventure when going out for a meal. The village of Howgate in Midlothian is close to Scottish Border country and just half an hour's drive from Edinburgh, a few miles south of the wonderful Rosslyn Chapel, made famous by the book and film "The Da Vinci Code". So whether you are head out of the city or from Peebles, Penicuik, Biggar, Galashiels or Melrose, the Howgate Bar and Restaurant - located just past the village on the A 6094 towards Leadburn- is easily accessible. Open seven days for lunch and dinner this charming old country inn offers a unique combination to cater for all guests where you can eat in the casual bistro or the more formal fine dining restaurant. So for Sunday family lunch, casual mid week supper, celebratory birthday party or quiet dinner for two, the Howgate can offer you the best table in the most suitable side of the house.
The long, low white washed building is tucked away down a drive surrounded by trees and shrubs. It was formerly Stables for race horses, later converted into a dairy. It is now beautifully restored into a cosy bar and restaurant, with - literally - a warm welcome to travellers as you are greeted by a roaring log fire in the centre of the bistro. The Howgate opened its doors in September 1998, created with entrepreneurial vision by Nigel Hogg who has nurtured and developed it over the years with a dedicated team under manager Peter Ridgway and Executive Chef, Steven Worth. It's certainly very much established now as a Destination bistro and restaurant for many repeat customers who do travel a few miles here to experience a good meal and a great day or night out.
As described above, there are two separate dining areas. Turn right into the casual Bistro beside the bar, furnished with attractive polished pine tables and chairs around the central open fire. It's a real country cottage look. Artefacts, candelabras and polished stone tea light holders are sourced from Bali and the Far East, where Nigel likes to travel. Turning left at the front door (as you would enter the First class compartment on an aircraft!), takes you to the intimate, romantic and delightful Restaurant, with a half a dozen or so well spaced tables dressed in white linen, white painted thick stone walls, stripped wood flooring and decorated with a huge gilt mirror on the end wall. For diners facing the mirror, they can still see what's going on behind them!
For a family meal we dined in the Restaurant which has a separate, slightly more upmarket menu than the Bistro, although there are several house specialities served in both dining rooms. The Howgate has built up its fine reputation on serving quality Scottish produce, straightforward classics and contemporary style dishes to suit everyone. Starters for instance offer the house favourite (rarely off the menu), Scottish Salmon and coriander fishcake (delectably delicious with juicy chunks of fish rather than 99% potato sometimes served), or Pan fried breast of Pigeon served ingeniously with Black pudding salad. And there's a daily choice of excellent home made soup, including classic Cullen Skink, a fishy feast of a meal in itself. Be warned - portion sizes are larger than usual, perhaps aimed at the Borders sheep farmers who expect a good meal out, rather than tiny nouvelle cuisine plates as often served in the city. So depending on your main course, waist-watching girls may like to select a salad to start such as a fresh and light Mozzarella and Cherry tomato with basil dressing. A large basket of thick chunks of brown and white bread with butter and bowl of olives is brought to the table to keep diners going until the first dishes arrive.
The Howgate is famed for its Charcoal Grill for a tempting range of Scotch beef steaks. All the beef is hung on the bone for a minimum of three weeks. Select from 8 oz fillet steak, 10 oz rib eye, 12 oz Sirloin or 20 oz T Bone as well as grilled Scotch Lamb cutlets. All are served with hand cut chips and vegetables, as well as a selection of sauces such as garlic butter or wild mushroom and port. At the other side of the table my father thoroughly enjoyed his medium rare (on the rare side) Fillet steak, grilled to perfection, seared around the edge and juicy blood red in the centre. The verdict was "Excellent." My dad knows his steaks and this must have been good.
Fish eaters and vegetarians are also well looked after in this extensive menu: Pan fried Sea Bass Asian style with stir fried pak choy and teryaki sauce, and for non meat eaters, Asparagus and sun dried tomato Risotto - tasty and moist, and sprinkled with parmesan (selected by my mother). Or for fans of Moule Frites there is West Coast Mussels (on the starter menu) which you could have for a main course with a side order of fries and a mixed salad.
Finally dessert - and continuing the classic, homely favourites so far, you may not be able to resist Traditional Sticky Toffee pudding with Luca's ice cream. For the uninitiated, Luca's has been selling their famous and utterly superb, high quality creamy Italian ices from their café in Musselburgh for generations - at the Howgate you can sample a few flavours. Also recommended is the Rhubarb Crème brûlée, or a platter of farmhouse cheese with oatcakes. A new wine list was launched in spring 2007 with a mouth watering selection from around the world. Good prices too for house wines by the glass or bottle, such as Marlborough Timara dry white and Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon from New Zealand, a fruity Argentinian Viognier, and a classic Spanish Rioja. Half bottles and a great many other wines too.
This was formal dining at its best, yet without too much pomp and circumstance. Service throughout was so attentive and friendly, efficient and professional. The young enthusiastic team of waiters are also knowledgeable and helpful if you needed advice on a certain dish, how it is cooked or to ask if a starter portion could be served as a main course. It was always "Yes of course," "how would you like that grilled," "no problem".
See www.howgate.com for current menu and prices.
For a taster of the Bistro menu, starters offer a similar range of soups, mussels, fishcake and salads. Then Steaks from the Charcoal Grill, Scampi, Pan fried chicken, Scottish Salmon, Pasta, Caesar salad, or Beef, Belhaven ale and mushroom pie. There is certainly something for every age, taste and appetite.
Receptions, weddings and private parties.
The Howgate is pleased to offer a private function suite for a birthday party, special celebration or wedding reception. There is the private Blue Room seating 16 people, the Bistro for 35 people, while the restaurant can be reserved for 40 people.
Howgate Bar and Restaurant is on the A6094 in Howgate Villge, Midlothian. For reservations, phone 01968 670 000. There is also a Howgate Bar and Restaurant Web site.
The Howgate will be celebrating its 10th birthday next year. The menu has not changed radically over the years - except for seasonal variety where meat and fish are dependent on the market. And there are often new dishes with a modern twist to ring the changes. But what brings diners back again and again is the fact that they know what to expect. The choice of casual and formal dining is a brilliant concept to suit everyone. The consistent menu is as welcoming as the open fire, a menu which is always appetising, season to season for a light lunch or slap up dinner. You can expect quality, classic Scottish dishes, from salmon to beef, meal-in-itself soups, chunky bread, fresh salads, pasta dishes and those impeccable fishcakes as well as Luca's ice cream.
"If it aint broke, don't fix it" must be the motto of Nigel, Peter and Steven who run this smart, sassy wee country inn with great pride and genuine passion. I shall definitely be returning and I know that my parents will be spreading the word too.
Vivien Devlin, British Guild of Travel Writers
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