Peter Ranscombe travels to Skye to visit the Three Chimneys, a restaurant-with-rooms that’s been wowing guests for more than 30 years, both with and without its Michelin star.
Few names conjure up images of fine dining like the “Three Chimneys”. Opened in 1985 by Eddie and Shirley Spear, the restaurant has become one of the most famous in Scotland, with diners making the journey to the Isle of Skye to sample fresh Scottish produce cooked to the very highest of standards.
Since the Skye Bridge opened in 1995, the island has become far more accessible to visitors. Many of the roads are now dual-track – in fact you’d be forgiven for thinking you were still driving along the West Coast of the mainland in places – and only the final stretch along Loch Dunvegan leading to Colbost is still single-track.
The Spears were quick to capitalise on the increase in tourists by opening The House Over-By in 1999, turning the Three Chimneys into a restaurant-with-rooms. Six of them to be precise, just across the car park from the old cottage with its white-washed stone walls and black slate roof tiles in which dinner is served.
Calling it picturesque just doesn’t do it justice. As the tide ebbs and flows in and out of the sea loch, the kelp fields reveal seals at play, while ducks, geese and waders call Colbost home at different times of year.
The Three Chimneys began winning awards not long after opening, being crowned “Scottish Restaurant of the Year” in 1990 and picking up a plethora of prizes on a regular basis ever since. Its trophy cabinet is now bursting at the seams, having scooped the “Editor’s Choice: UK Restaurant of the Year” title in the 2018 Good Food Guide.
Both the AA and VisitScotland rate the establishment as a five gold-star restaurant with rooms, with the AA also awarding it three rosettes for its cooking. Its breakfast and wine list have also won awards.
For many years, perhaps the only thing missing from the restaurant’s pantheon of prizes was a Michelin star. In 2014, head chef Michael Smith – who took over kitchen duties from Shirley in 2006 – won the eatery’s first star. He left just months later and the following year’s guide didn’t award the restaurant a star.
Yet Shirley was sanguine, saying at the time that the star had been “a complete surprise” and that she “completely” respected the guide’s decision the following year. Instead, she threw her support behind Scott Davies, who took over from Smith as head chef. And, having tasted his food, it’s easy to see why Shirley has so much confidence in Davies’ abilities. His dishes lived up to the hype that surrounds the restaurant.
An amuse-bouche of langoustine bisque with sour apple and rye crumbs was rich and had an almost vanilla-like creaminess. The combination of sweetness, sourness and toastiness worked extremely well.
Melt-in-the-mouth wood pigeon served alongside beetroot and caramelised onion followed as a starter. While the bird was superb, it was the palette of colours used on the plate that really caught the eye, from the green of kale through to the orange of carrot and the yellow of sweetcorn.
Game was the order of the day for the main course too; venison was paired with a creamy mushroom duxelle and ash-smoked celeriac, which echoed the earthiness of turnip. Again, pretty as a picture on the plate, but it was the taste that made the dish a real winner.
Pudding almost felt like a disappointment for once after such marvellous savoury courses. There were no faults with the chocolate mousse encased within a chocolate shell and served with quenelles of sour salted caramel and sweet chocolate ice creams, but the dish simply didn’t sparkle to the same extent as the previous two.
A return trip is definitely in order to sample the set menu and its accompanying paired wines though. The eight-course “Skye, Land & Sea” tasting menu looked superb, with an impressive array of seven wines to match.
One of the most exciting elements of the wine list was to see such a wide selection of high-quality half bottles, ideal for diners on their own or couples looking to pair different wines with different courses themselves. The 2016 Willi Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner “Terrassen” from Austria bristled with aromas of granny smith apples, apricots and faint flowers, leading into rounder apple, bruised pear and peachy notes on the palate to balance the fresh acidity – ideal for cutting through the richness of the langoustine bisque.
With two game dishes, syrah from the Northern Rhone was high on the agenda for the red, and the Domaine du Murinais Les Amandiers hit the spot. The nose of the wine from Crozes-Hermitage was full of developed notes of mushroom, manure, damp hedgerows, smoke, blackcurrant, blackberry and a twist of redcurrant, with rich and rounded vanilla enveloping the black plum, black cherry and blackcurrant flavours on the tongue.
As intriguing as the wine list was the selection of Scotch back in the lounge in The House Over-By. As well as local boy Talisker, the shelves were brimming with other whiskies, from Balvenie to Highland Park and back again.
The lounge also doubles-up as the breakfast room, with a stunning view over the sea loch. If there’s room for a cooked breakfast after the previous night’s feast then it’s well-worth the effort.
The split-level bedroom – following the contours of the hillside – was extremely comfortable, with a massive bed and an even-more generously proportioned en-suite. The home baking was, perhaps unsurprisingly given the quality of meal, simply awesome.
Not just an amazing place for a relaxing retreat from the world, The House Over-By could also make an interesting getaway for private meetings or for rewarding key business teams. Few places can rival Skye’s dramatic landscape – who wouldn’t be inspired in their business or personal lives by such a stunning location?
Rooms in The House Over-By start from £345 a night, including breakfast. Dinner in the Three Chimneys starts from £68 per person, while the tasting menu is £90 per person with the accompanying wine flights are £55 per person.