The Flying Stag
The Fife Arms, Mar Rd, Braemar
Anyone with the merest aversion to tartan should look away now. Seriously, sling yer hook, and bolt off down south. Because The Flying Stag, part of The Fife Arms in Braemar, is a full-throttle, dirk-wielding, Strip The Willow, Gay Gordons och aye Jimmy Highland fling. Stag horns stand guard over a bar that glows amber with whisky. In the centre, that airborne deer, the famed Flying Stag, a full-sized stuffed beast, complete with tiny ptarmigan wings.
The Flying Stag in Braemar. Stag horns stand guard over a bar that glows amber with whisky. In the centre, that airborne deer, the famed Flying Stag
Staff are clad in tartan, curtains are made of it, solid oak tables are seemingly hewn from vast cabers, while the walls are plastered with portraits of locals. Some wear full Highland garb, with faces as craggy as the Cairngorms. Others sit, at home, smiling, gazing, frowning. There’s a dartboard, and stuffed birds and beasties in Victorian cabinets, some timorous, some not. It’s a bold but rather brilliant room, which melds proper local pub with the hunting lodge of an eccentric billionaire. Or someone plucked from the pages of Conan Doyle.
There’s also the feeling of a wink and a nudge, not cruel, or elitist or supercilious, rather an art installation with a grand old sense of humour. Victorian freak-show taxidermy, in a magical, mind-bending hotel. Where else would you find paintings by Freud and Picasso, a waxwork of Queen Victoria, swirling, psychedelic Zhang Enli ceilings, classic Thorburn sporting watercolours and a Richard Jackson neon chandelier?
Nowhere but here. Which makes sense, as the whole hotel has been lavishly and lovingly refurbished by the Wirth family, giants of the contemporary art scene and the sort of benign benefactors who create a hotel that wows, without ever losing that innate Royal Deeside charm. It’s both intensely regional and gloriously international. Locals (who are given a special discount) make up a good percentage of the pub crowd, along with us passing tourists. The place is, of course, packed.
There’s a silken Highland carpaccio covered with a blizzard of shaved horseradish, strands of pickled beetroot and a fistful of watercress. Big flavours, but there to flatter and cosset that beautiful beef. And house-cured salmon, a touch salty but wonderfully sweet, and scattered with deep-fried capers and a pungent, wild garlic-spiked mayonnaise. Both plates allow the sheer quality of the local ingredients to shine. Best of all is the most simple of tomato salads, with fruits of various hues imbued with the sun-blessed intensity of skies rather bluer than our own. Most certainly not local, but most certainly divine.
Fish and Chips. It may be a couple of quid dearer than the classic fish supper but, by God it’s a beauty
A burger is served rare, with a dollop of bone marrow, the quality of the beef superlative. The bun is soft, while a splodge of horseradish slaw may seem extraneous but adds bite and crunch. My fried fish is coated with one of the best batters I’ve ever demolished: crisp, golden and brittle. The fish has steamed inside, falling apart in fat, luscious flakes. It may be a couple of quid dearer than the classic fish supper but, by God it’s a beauty. Chips are thin and still wear their skins. I like mine fatter and naked, but that’s just a matter of taste.
Then a vegetable broth that is rather more Italian than Scottish, more liquid salad than soup, brimming with asparagus and broad beans, roasted new potatoes, fresh ricotta, mint, basil and excellent olive oil. It’s the verdant, vibrant quintessence of spring and sap rising, and a nod to executive chef Timothy Kensett’s six-year stint at The River Café. Pudding is a pitch-perfect lemon posset, neat and sharp, plus a panacotta that wobbles in all the right ways. So yes, this is pub grub, but superior pub grub with a truly local burr. Scotland has some of the finest produce on Earth, and here they revel in all its fecund, seasonal glory. Good things done really, really well – scran to remember in a room you’ll never forget. About £24 per head