The defining characteristic of a destination restaurant is one where the journey is worth the meal at the end of it. I’m yet to fully decide whether The Flying Stag falls into this unique category and perhaps, dear reader, during this review, we can figure it out together.
The Flying Stag is located in the boutique luxury hotel The Fife Arms in Braemar, a postcard-pretty village, deep in the heart of the Cairngorms, Scotland.
The Cairngorms is a stunning part of the world and a particularly lovely part of Scotland. Think winding driving roads, jaw-dropping natural landscapes and distilleries like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet en route – it’s all ridiculously romantic. As such, if a destination restaurant – a term which originated at the genesis of the Michelin guide – is located here, you’ll at the very least have the supreme joy of getting there to savour.
This national park and natural wonder brings us Braemar, and then The Fife Arms. If you’ve been living under a rock you’ll have missed the renovation and re-opening of this once-forgotten rural retreat. With gallerist and art dealer Iwan Wirth at the helm, The Fife Arms has become the hospitality it-girl of the past few years and upon arrival, the sense of a ‘destination’ deepened.
The Flying Stag is the more casual offering in the hotel. The main restaurant, the Clunie Dining Room, is the formal bigger brother, with Michelin credentials and established critical acclaim. It’s one of the reasons I opted for the alternative, hoping it would be the kind of rebellious younger sibling, full of inventive creativeness that the more straight-laced Clunie couldn’t possibly get away with.
Things start well enough. We are greeted on a cold terrace (thanks to Covid) with even colder Martinis; made at the correct strength and temperature which sat alongside some very posh (read: improper, but still tasty) pork scratchings.
We moved inside for our reservation and for starters we ploughed through the ‘Ghillies’ board – like a kind of Scottish antipasti – and the black pudding bonbons with plum sauce. The board was a little boring to be honest, but the bonbons deserve special mention. Their plump, warm fattiness and rich morcilla-level flavour was truly delicious – a perfect mouthful so pleasurable I regretted not ordering them sooner. I’d also come to learn that these tasty bites were probably the best thing one can order.
We also chose the somewhat local – although how local you can say in this part of the world remains to be seen – haggis neeps and tatties. Each individual element was cooked well, however the haggis itself was left wanting in the flavour department. It lacked something: a certain umami punch, an offally thwack, a peppery note to end on. Sadly none arrived, and whilst the gravy did enrich the dish a touch, all in all they need to turn the flavour on this plate up to 11.
For mains we dive into wood-fired Hogget Gigot Chop (that’s lamb to you and me) served with a tiny portion of lamb marrow. The meat itself was tender enough, rosy pink inside with a light char flavour, and a ‘green’ sauce that was reminiscent of a fresh, almost minty Chimichurri. But two open goals were missed on this dish. The aforementioned marrow barely gleaned a teaspoon of rich, fatty goodness and I was utterly devastated that this finely cooked lamb lacked a proper gravy; a warm brown thick something just to bring everything in. Something heady and mop-up-able with a bit of bread – alas, my kingdom for a sauce!!
My dining companions enjoyed a well-cooked sirloin steak with decent fries and a wild garlic aioli. Again, a not unpleasant dish but one I think we all agreed wasn’t very memorable.
The wine to wash all this down with was a very agreeable Italian Grenache, vibrant, rich and delicious, but at £52 a bottle we were all left wondering what the mark-up is round these parts.
Avoiding pudding for more libations, we end the evening on a round of excellently made Negronis and Old Fashioneds and ponder the buzzing dining room around us. It was reassuring to see the locals and their dogs as well as the obvious tourists (like us) congregating to welcome the grand re-opening of hospitality. As we supped, we considered whether this is a destination restaurant and as I write this, I think I know on which side of the fence I’m coming down.
Part of it, I hate to say, is the pricing. The service is genuinely lovely, but I wasn’t blown away by a sense of great value for money. For someone who is so ardently opposed to those who conflate cost with value, I was left feeling a little deflated.
Maybe I’m being a touch harsh on the place given The Fife Arms, and thereby The Flying Stag, is in all honesty created for the Hauser and Wirth set. These are the same owners that revolutionised Bruton in Somerset from a quiet little corner that no one had ever heard of, to the hottest out-of-London destination in the South of England.
I do hope Braemar doesn’t become the next Bruton, though. There’s a strong waft of wankery-ness to that town, ever since George Osbourne moved there, and I don’t believe the Scottish tend to mix well with wankers. Or Tories for that matter. But perhaps I’m already too late; the Ferraris in the car park and general 5-star feel of the place are dead giveaways. But then, what did I expect?
I suppose what I was looking for was an overwhelming sense of old-world hospitality, generosity and damn good food and, to my dismay, left having only experienced glimmers of each. Yes, overall the food isn’t bad, but special? Comforting? Heartwarmingly delicious? I’m sorry to say but I don’t think “isn’t bad” is good enough.
So, whilst The Fife Arms is, and may be for some time to come, a buzzing destination, I’m afraid their pub, as a standalone eating experience, sadly isn’t.
by Mike Daw