EATING OUT: A bit below par for the course

TURNBERRY HOTEL; Turnberry, Ayrshire, Scotland KA23 9LT. Tel: 01655 331000. Open Sunday only for lunch, 7 days for dinner. Three-course set lunch £19.50 plus glass of champagne; three-course set dinner £37.50. All major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
THE TURNBERRY Hotel is like a vast white ocean liner which has blundered on to a golf course on wild west coast of southern Scot-land. Built as the world's first hotel/golf course complex (it hosted the Open last summer), it has a turn-of-the-century elegance far from the myriad Costa del Sol monstrosities it has spawned. A long white staircase is draped like a carpet down rolling lawns. We swept up the driveway, parked our car among an array of Bentleys and Porsches and right next to a red Ferrari, and swanned along a broad, wood-panelled corridor into the dining room.

Well! Yellow wedding cake wasn't the word. The dining room is a huge glitzy room with chandeliers, marble pillars, iced yellow walls, and windows giving fabulous views over the sea to Ailsa Craig, a mysterious uninhabited island rising straight up from the sea like a miniature mountain. Being the only posh food outlet for miles around, the Turnberry draws in aristos and rich people from far and wide who pay up to £85 a day to shape up in the health spa and guzzle three-course meals.

It being a holiday Sunday the place was packed with families, with waiters milling between them pushing a shining carvery trolley so big it looked as though it had a body in it, which I suppose it did, in a way. There were grannies in pale blue cardis, grandpas with beetling Scottish brows and startlingly glamorous mummies. We behaved quite badly to begin with, asking the waiter to re-set the table so that we could look out of the window, then deciding it was more interesting looking into the room. At the table next to us was a beooooootiful lady, thin as a stick insect with blonde hair piled high and wondrously, a tight little suit slashed to the thigh and the highest stilettos you've ever seen in your life. She was smoking a fag with undreamt of heights of daintiness and was surrounded by three matching adolescent daughters in a nice beige.

The Turnberry offers a three-course luncheon menu for £19.50 including coffee and petit fours and a free glass of champagne, which got things off to an excellent start. The wine list was less of a bargain with the cheapest bottle at £17, but no matter - it came in a lovely bucket.

One of my friends, it has to be said, came to the meal with some preconceptions, there being talk in the area that the food was no better than it ought to be. "Fish knives are non-U," she said, looking suspiciously at the place settings, then misunderstanding our startled faces added sheepishly, "Well. They used to be non-U." She was slightly won round by her cream of onion soup, declaring it, "not at all bad". The other two of us both went for marinated Scottish salmon and fennel-flavoured mustard dressing; this being the heart of salmon-fishing land, raw salmon was unmissable. It was good, though not spectacular, resembling smoked salmon but rather more creamy-tasting without the tang of smoke.

What did impress us in such elegant surroundings was the plain-speaking menu style. There was of course the traditional incomprehensible word (champvallon?) but there was a refreshing absence of "Mushrooms snuffled out at dawn by Wild Boars, roasted for three years over a Balsa-Wood Shepherd's- Hut griddle and served on their Confit of Lamb's Cheek Ravioli." Roast rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding, pan juices and horseradish sauce was more the style.

One of my friends ordered haddock omelette, which arrived looking as though the omelette was wrapped round an entire fish. It was here that things started to fall apart on the culinary front. The haddock omelette was all very well, but the sauce was deemed "a bit syntheticy". The calves' liver was tough, though the polenta, onions, and sherry sauce were nice, and my sauted pheasant, with mushrooms and port wine sauce, reminded me of nothing so much as a hockey puck. It was hard as a rock. This was all the more upsetting since we could easily have run over a good half- dozen pheasants on the way there if we hadn't swerved. The vegetables were the worst. Turnip pure tasted as though they'd drained the water, mashed it up, added nothing and left it standing; and poached leeks? Boiled- to- within-an-inch-of-their-lives leeks, more like.

The puddings were a bit better. Baked apple tart with maple and cinnamon ice-cream was "a good idea. The combinations are nice but the tart is a bit brittle." My friend who ordered the cream caramel, strawberries and ginger syrup said: "I liked eating it, but I didn't think it was any good." Again, the syntheticy taste was the problem, rearing its head also in my creamed rice with spiced pears. I'm sure there wasn't anything synthetic in there - but neither was there the creamy nutmeggy deliciousness you would hope for. There was just something about the sweetness that would keep bringing the word "packet" to mind.

We all agreed you would have expected better food in a place that plays host to top international golf people, claims to offer "the finest in classical cuisine", is surrounded by sea, salmon rivers and grouse moors and has meeting suites opened by Lady Thatcher. But the view and splendid surroundings are what you go for, the price was more than reasonable, and the service both good and friendly.

The service did rather let itself down, though, when we repaired to the lounge for coffee. There simply wasn't anywhere to sit. After hanging around for a while we approached a waitress, who said: "I don't know where you should sit. You'll have to wait a long time," so we stomped back to the dining room. To be fair, it was an unusually busy day, and the management offered us a free drink each to compensate.

Still, we'd had a lovely elegant time, although when we emerged into the fresh air and looked for our car among the porsches and Ferraris, we discovered that they were all still there, but ours had been moved into another car park with all the Ford Orions.