Douglas Blyde heads to the Highlands to dine at MARA. During his visit, he discovers how general manager Phil Scott has created a wine list that combines “a judicious chunk of personal favourites” with those of his colleagues including a dry, unfortified Pedro Ximénez served by the glass.
“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,” wrote Brian Stormont in The Press and Journal of the new restaurant at historic Scottish manor Links House.
A former manse to the Dornoch Free Church, the principal building was restored by the same architect who upgraded Skibo Castle.
Although a mere 50 yards from the first tee of Royal Dornoch Golf Club, a proficiency in golf is not necessary to enjoy the fruits of the estate, according to general manager Phil Scott, whose motto is, “you don’t ask, you don’t get”. In fact, the setting can even stir the appetite, says the former player of Australian Rules Football for Scotland. “Overlooking the Dornoch Firth and Portmahomick, coupled with catching a glimpse of the Struie Hill in the distance can help stimulate the notion of where we get some of our core ingredients: seafood from the North Sea; Portmahomick for lobster and sometimes crab.”
Scott, who cites the “legend” Jean-Claude Fourmon of Champagne Joseph Perrier as one of his idols, has created a very fit wine list combining “a judicious chunk of personal favourites”, such as “exciting wines like our Sauvignon Gris from Chile”, with those of his colleagues, like the dry, unfortified Pedro Ximénez served by the glass (Bodega Ximénez-Spínola Fermentacion Lenta). There are also vinous influences from the estate’s North American proprietor Todd Warnock, including near retail price picks from the “Older & Wiser” section, such as HDV Hyde de Villaine Chardonnay. Emphasis, overall, is on food-focused wines, says Scott, including “Manzanilla and oysters”.
Created by head chef Kevin Barber, dishes at MARA may include crab tortellini with fennel and crab bisque which Scott pairs with I Frati Lugana from Ca’ dei Frati. “A fantastically versatile wine with a lovely little prickle on the tongue from the maturation on its lees. Refreshing, crisp and supportive.”
Harking from the 1981 vintage, from which standout bottles have included Lynch-Bages and Tignanello, Scott previously worked in China, Mongolia and Singapore with Montrose Fine Wines and Kempinski Hotels. But the Highlands is his haven. “While searching for my route to come home, Links House found me. I spent most of my time regaling my guests overseas with the beauty of the Highlands combined with our unique larder and the question was often posed, ‘What are you doing here then?!’”
• Wine and golf weekends
• France, Italy and the US
• Ready-to-drink wines
Score: 92.5, Value: 94, Size: 92, Range: 91.5, Originality: 90, Experience: 95