Nestled in the tranquil Perthshire countryside, if it’s peace, solitude, luxury and some damn fine cooking you’re looking for, then Knock Castle Hotel & Spa should be heading up you’re ‘to-go-to’ list.
Located in the old market town of Crieff and set above the town overlooking the Strathearn Valley, the hotel occupies an envious position many competitors would pay handsomely to have.
As you trundle up the tree lined driveway suddenly the canopy opens up and Knock Castle reveals itself to you in all its glorious splendour.
The views are spectacular, and you’ll go a long way trying to find better. I know, it’s a bit of a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less untrue.
Owned by the Henderson family, it’s nice to see that they have a finger on the daily pulse of the establishment in the figure of Jason Henderson, head chef and general manager. Originally built in 1885 for a Glaswegian merchant the property changed hands in 1932 to David MacBrayne of the MacBrayne shipping family, and, in fact, Lady MacBrayne lived in the property until the 1970’s, when it was sold and latterly operated as a health spa. Since buying it in 2007, the Henderson’s have injected cash into the building renovating and repairing to bring it up to modern standards, but always with an eye to its historical features.
Tucked away on a street above the town, you’d be forgiven for thinking your sat-nav was sending you on a wild goose chase. But bear with it. On arrival, there are plenty of parking spaces up one side of the driveway with a few right at the front door. It’s an imposing building from the get go with a double stone staircase leading to the oak front door. This makes it potentially unsuitable for some disabled guests, but fear not, the hotel has another ground level entrance more suited to wheelchair users and those with mobility impairments.
We arrived early at just after 12 noon and our room wasn’t ready. However, the reception staff kindly took our bags for us while we explored the grounds, swimming pool and other facilities. We followed a path through the well-kept gardens to the lodge - a separate house which can be rented by parties who want some privacy. It has nine bedrooms and can be used on a self-catering basis. There are seating areas located within the gardens and also a summerhouse for guests to use.
One thing which became evident very early on during this visit was just how exceptionally friendly, competent and professional all members of staff are, who are more than happy to take ownership of, and deal with any queries which arose.
The hotel is essentially in three sections. The older original building, the newer 1975 extension (more about that later) and the leisure facilities located in the grounds. The 1885 building still contains a lot of original features; stone fireplaces, panelled ceilings, an oak staircase, all of which give it an air of elegance from a different era. This section contains the public rooms, snug bar, access to the basement spa treatment rooms, a function suite/conference room, the cinema and a small gift shop. The newer extension, and in my opinion, a bit of an eyesore, is basically a square white rendered block which couldn’t be further from the original style, although, thankfully, the interior has been lent a much more sympathetic touch. The leisure facilities, which are a short walk away in the gardens, feature a good sized swimming pool, sauna, steam room, spa bath, gymnasium, and changing rooms.
The original building is where you will find the deluxe rooms, junior suites and full suites, while the newer section houses nine standard rooms.
We were accommodated in the Glenalmond suite, one of the full-size turreted rooms. This was a very well appointed and apportioned suite. It contained all the essential storage requirements of both hanging and antique freestanding furniture, a seven-foot sleigh bed abutted by bedside tables with individual lighting. The room also contained two armchairs, coffee tables, tea and coffee making facilities, biscuits and bottled water. The soft furnishings were in keeping with the building, featuring tartan curtains and pelmets, an inoffensive oatmeal colour scheme, candle effect wall sconce lighting, highland landscape pictures - and not forgetting the large flat-screen TV, nor indeed the views across the top of the tree canopy.
The bathroom, well that was something else altogether! The long room which extended out into the turret contained a sunken bath reached by four steps. And, with the two windows, what decadence luxuriating with the complimentary toiletries provided while looking across the skyline. The bathroom was completed with twin vanity units set into a marble top, a corner shower cabinet and complimentary robes and slippers. We’ve now moved into a different level of bathroom luxury.
The bed, a rather unique seven-foot square behemoth, could easily have held a party, had we been that way inclined! Fitted with a memory foam mattress there were also four pillows supplied, good quality thread-count white linen and a matching duvet. The only noticeable thing was the lack of either mattress or pillow protectors, however, I am assured this was merely an oversight on housekeeping’s part when making the room up. In fact, because of the odd size of this mattress the protectors apparently have to be bought in the US and shipped over.
And, what a lovely personal touch with the fresh flowers and hand-made chocolates which were in the room awaiting our arrival. It’s these sorts of extras that just make Knock Castle stand out above the rest.
A couple of things to bear in mind is that dinner reservations are necessary, as is booking a slot for your breakfast. The former isn’t a great problem unless the restaurant is full at your preferred time, and even then they’ll work around this, however, the latter could present more of a difficulty to some. Booking breakfast for 8.15am on a Sunday was never going to be a problem for me as we’re up and about by 7am. However, if you’re the type of guest that likes to have a more relaxed attitude to breakfast, this may be slightly more restrictive than you’d like. There is of course a very good reason for this system. All meals are cooked to order so that freshness and quality are maintained to the highest possible standards - and I can attest that they are.
I briefly touched on the head chef earlier, Jason Henderson. He runs a tight ship in the kitchen, leaving the remainder of the hotel under the guidance of front of house manager, Malcolm Copland. Upstairs, in the rooftop restaurant, this domain is under the very able control of David, the Maître D’. All three individuals were taken to task during my review, and without exception, all of them pulled off my requests without a stutter or a stumble. Nothing really was too much trouble.
Jason’s ethos is to utilise local suppliers wherever possible, meaning that his wine supplier is in the town, as are his bakery, chocolatiers, butchers and greengrocers. He firmly believes in supporting his community as he sees the sense in knowing he can get the freshest produce which is in season locally, and serve it on plates within hours.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the restaurant is located on the top floor and can be reached by a lift for those who need it. The views are superlative. I have reviewed many restaurants in many cities, but to sit having breakfast watching the low-lying mist twist and turn in the valley below, while the sun rises casting orange beams of light across the landscape as it started to blend into an indigo sky was a first - stunning doesn’t really do it justice!
There are four menus in operation. The degustation, à la carte table d’hôte and the bar menu. It was great to see, and a very pleasant change, that customers could pick and choose to their heart’s content from any or all of them, even to the point of swapping elements of dishes as required. The degustation menu, and for those who are wondering, this is the one which showcases the chef’s signature dishes, is a seven-course affair. But fear not dear diner, the portions are plated at a size that ensures you can get through it.
So, on entry to the bar we were shown into the lounge and presented with menus while drinks orders were then taken. Once the kitchen brigade has the starters ready, diners are escorted to their table while, in our case, Dave brought our drinks to the table for us. It’s all about the service, and Knock Castle do it very well indeed.
A selection of the chef’s homemade bread of the day is served along with a trio of whipped butters - and delicious it all was too. I had opted for the degustation menu, with a main off the à la carte while Mrs Mac chose to dine from the table d’hôte with a starter from the à la carte
My courses were: Duck liver pate with homemade brioche and a pear and celeriac puree; home-cured Scottish smoked salmon with radish and watercress gel; chefs choice of sorbet; I opted to swap out the filet of beef for a half west coast lobster chowder with dauphine potatoes, baby vegetables and monkfish cheek; chocolate sphere filled with Chantilly cream, fresh berries and a warm salted caramel sauce; a cheese plate with celery sticks, apple slivers, black and green grapes, homemade oatcakes and a selection of five cheeses with a homemade chutney and to finish tea or coffee with homemade chocolates.
I heard you groaning while reading that, but, believe me, it is doable. There’s no rush, the table is yours for the evening. I’m not going to bore you by breaking down every component into its constituent part, but suffice to say, there’s some very refined cooking going on here in the skilful hands of Jason and his team. For me, the outstanding dishes of the night had to be the smoked salmon and the lobster.
The salmon had such a delicate flavour from the cure, yet even so, remained fresh and clean. So often chefs oak smoke or cure with lemon or some other rub or mix and ‘kill’ the fish. My salmon retained both the texture it should have, as well as that natural oiliness. The pea shoots added a nice colour balance to the black serving slate and the radish and pickled cauliflower gave the crunch and texture change needed to pull the whole dish together with dots of watercress gel. All in all, it’s food which is up there in the Michelin standard level.
Being a highland boy who caught or trapped his own dinner many a time, I’m a sucker for seafood, and hence the reason to swap the beef fillet for the half lobster. And, I’m going to kick this off by saying I’ve only eaten a better lobster dish once - and it was prepared by Michel Roux Senior at La Gavroche!
My main was a lightly poached half lobster removed from its shell and served with a single claw meat, also removed from the shell. It sat atop a small, but well-chosen selection of vegetables, which in turn had been placed in a light broth of creamy chowder. The two parmesan crisps provided some texture with a bite as did the outer coating of the Dauphine potato. The smoothness of the mash inside the golden exterior lent just another element to this dish. The little deep-fried monkfish cheek was, well, something else. The deep frying hadn’t lost the tenderness of the flesh, nor had it overpowered that light flavour monkfish is so well known for. It’s so easy to overcook lobster, two minutes too long and it’s ruined, not plunging into iced water can leave it cooking in a hot shell, so it’s important for any chef offering lobster, crayfish, langoustine that they understand the subtleties of cooking correctly. Mine was perfect. Succulent, tender, soft and sweet and not lost in a heavy claggy sauce. It was a delight on the palate, and, as importantly, it all married together perfectly as a whole dish. It was quite sublime!
Mrs Mac opted for the starter dish of crispy goats’ cheese platter with redcurrant jelly, finished with a praline and poached pear dressing with pickled cauliflower; followed by a sorbet and a main course of sea bass fillet with a pesto mash, baby vegetables and finished with a lemon cream. To top the lot, she then chose the lime meringue with raspberry gel, strawberry ice cream and coconut crisps.
The following morning, we rose to a fine day and made our way to breakfast. I had expected something special, to be honest, and I wasn’t to be disappointed. Dave was on duty again (does he ever sleep?) and we were given drinks and toast options. Fruit juices, breakfast cereals, yoghurt, croissants, fresh fruit and cheeses were self-service.
The menu presented me with an immediate quandary. Should I opt for the Arbroath Smokies or the full Scottish? The cooked breakfast won out. Containing two pork sausages, two rashers bacon, Stornoway black pudding, a choice of eggs (fried, scrambled or poached) mushrooms, fresh tomato, a potato scone and a slice of fried bread. The only thing missing was the beans! Aah well, you can’t have everything. There were no complaints whatsoever, and the freshness of everything made the reason for booking your slot all the more understandable. Nothing on this plate had been pre-cooked and left to wither under a heat lamp until dry and inedible.
Other breakfast options included, plain or Drambuie porridge, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and Kippers.
And so back to reality as I packed the bags and we had to leave the luxury and comfort of Knock Castle. If you’re looking for somewhere to go for a special meal, at very reasonable prices, in a setting you’re unlikely to find very often, then I strongly recommend you consider Knock Castle as a destination. And what better way to celebrate a special event, or just to relax in convivial surroundings than spending a weekend in the heart of Perthshire. It’s redolent of a bygone era where everything and everyone moved at a much slower pace and digital technology didn’t rule our lives. And it’s so much the better for that approach.