EATING OUT / Paradise in Perthshire: Kinnaird Country House Hotel

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Kinnaird Estate, Nr Dunkeld, Perthshire PH8 OLB. Tel: 0796 482440

Open daily for lunch and dinner. Closed February. Average price pounds 19- pounds 24 for 2/3 course lunch, pounds 38 for 4-course dinner. All major cards accepted, except Diners.

WE OPTED for the three-course menu. Not, I think, because either of us was hungry. We couldn't have been. I, at any rate, had gone directly from bed to the breakfast table to the car to the restaurant to lunch. But we were heading south, heading home - from the freedom of the snow-covered Scottish Highlands - to wretched, rainy Shepherd's Bush. The New Year party was well and truly over and this was to be our last blowout for some time.

Kinnaird is a country house hotel for people with lots of money. Its guests are being offered a special deal at the moment, which allows them to spend three nights under its very graceful roof for just pounds 660. Thrown in with the price, they get a 'handmade teddy bear dressed in a royal blue jumper and a Kinnaird tweed scarf'.

So it's not cheap. Our lunch cost us pounds 82, but god it was good. Honestly, teddy bears aside, the Kinnaird is paradise. We arrived half-an-hour late, at two o'clock. The kitchens were supposed to be closing. But none of the staff allowed us to notice how annoying it must have been. A waiter led us, with amazingly little obsequiousness (when you consider the poshness of the place) to a large and elegant sitting room with a large open fire. He brought us perfect Bloody Marys and a small plate of miniature quiches and other fancy delights, all of which were delicious. He brought us our menus and didn't appear to mind at all when it took us 20 minutes to decide whether to opt for the two- or three- course set menu.

And then he left us in peace. We examined our fellow diners (only one group: smartly dressed, middle-aged, Scottish, friendly, not particularly inspiring). We examined our afternoon's castle and felt quite content.

The 200-year-old house is big and pretty and not, at least on the outside, especially grand. It is set in the middle of a large estate in Perthshire on which richer and heartier punters can attempt to kill any number of different animals (birds, fish, deer). Others - relatively poor people, moralists and townies - can stay inside and settle for a look out of the sitting-room windows, through the rain and on to dramatic views of the Tay valley. There was a backgammon table beside the fire. There were up-to-date issues of all the glossy magazines on the table beside that. But it was in the room beyond the sitting room where the most exciting entertainment offer of all lay. The billiard-room walls were covered, as perhaps they ought to have been, with glass cases of grimacing 100-year-old, 60lb stuffed salmon. Beneath them was a full-sized snooker table. What a laugh. What a joy.

After lunch it was cluttered up by an Italian foursome (two old men, two young floozies) none of whom appeared to have the beginnings of an idea about how to play. When, finally, they did manage to finish their feeble first game they immediately set up the table for a second. We didn't leave the hotel until seven o'clock that evening. It's not often you get to play snooker in such peaceful and pretty surroundings.

It's not often, in fact, that anywhere is as pleasant as the Kinnaird. And nobody bothered us. Nobody pressed us to look at the bill. Nobody complained - nobody even commented - when finally I paid it, supported only by a broken-in-half, pounds 50 cheque guarantee card. They just brought us more free coffee and more free miniature mince pies. Just in case we were feeling hungry.

Which we weren't, though it didn't make any difference. A set, three-course menu costs pounds 24 (wine prices began at pounds 15 a bottle; we had a delicious bottle of Burgundy for pounds 20). I opted, from a choice of three first courses, for a lobster, salmon and monkfish stew, which was good but slightly boring. I don't know why. Perhaps because I always go for the lobster/monkfish option when I find myself in a smart restaurant and it's beginning to get a little repetitive. Or perhaps I only think the stew is boring in retrospect because I'm comparing it to the main course. Which was exquisite: three 'honey roast quails', served with port and lentils.

I couldn't quite finish the third quail. I often can't quite finish things. It doesn't usually bother me. But now, I can't stop thinking about that final quail. The other two were perfect. They were juicy and tender and rich and sweet. They were beautiful; golden brown and small and compact . . . I think, honestly, that they were among the top two or three things I've ever tasted in my life. Worth at least a 900-mile detour.

My significant partner opted for the 'potted duck and rabbit' - it was a terrine - for a first course. (Neither of us considered the cauliflower soup). He thought it was excellent but I wasn't sure. Anyway, it didn't mix well with the lobster/monkfish I was eating at the same time. His next course, however - the roast lamb with mint and mustard seed crusts - was something else. Melted in the mouth, it did. Very tender indeed. A class act, and still not a touch on those quails.

I felt a fool about the third course. It was a waste of money (two courses only cost pounds 19.50) and a waste of food. I could barely begin the white chocolate mousse with raspberry and vanilla sauce that came next. I tasted it, and like everything else it was very good. But then I gave up. My friend's 'selection of cheeses' came mostly from Scotland. It was an above- average selection. He finished them and we headed for the billiards room for a fag and some snooker and a long afternoon of coffee, petits fours and bliss.-