From warm, idyllic Languedoc-Roussillon to the Highlands of Scotland sounds an unlikely leap, but when French chef Loic Lefebvre was invited to be head chef at La Riviera restaurant at the Glenmoriston Town House hotel in Inverness by new owner Barry Larsen, it was the perfect career opportunity.
Having worked as a sous chef both at the two-Michelin-starred La Bastide Saint Antoine in Grasse and for two years alongside the Pourcel brothers at the three-starred Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, Lefebvre certainly had an impressive pedigree. And when he met Larsen, he was ready for a new challenge. "I wanted to be where I could create a menu as I wanted it - and I also wanted to improve my knowledge of food," he explains.
So how does he feel about being in Inverness? "I love Scotland and its food," he says. "I can take a walk in the forest and pick mushrooms, or fish in the river for salmon, and the quality is fantastic. Unlike France, cooking here uses a lot of different types of ingredients. You can be more exotic in style and flavour - for example, by using unusual fruit or spices."
He stresses that, while La Riviera is a French restaurant, his first priority is to use Scottish produce - although he admits that some items can be problematic. But there are advantages, too. "The game here is wonderful," he enthuses. "Wild duck and partridge are shot locally for me on the Black Isle, and most of our vegetables are grown locally." He buys his wild langoustines and scallops from the west coast of Scotland, and declares that the scallops are the best he has ever tasted.
Preferring to avoid the "fusion" label, Lefebvre describes his style of cooking as French modern, with influences from Japan and North Africa, in particular. His starter of "d‚clinaison" of salmon illustrates his approach.
Delivering four very different presentations of salmon on one plate, it highlights his love of contrast - sweet flavours against sour; soft textures against crisp. Salmon sesame tataki has a Japanese feel, with thin slices first seared, then served cold in a balsamic caramel; while smoked salmon is rolled with herbs and sweet spices and accompanied by a cauliflower mousse. A croquette filled with gently fried salmon makes up the third creation, alongside a vanilla tartare and pineapple and Szechwan pepper granit‚.
Fresh cŠpe poˆl‚ reflects Lefebvre's delight in using local mushrooms. "With the damp weather we have up here, there are always plenty to use, too," he adds. "I sear them in butter, add some chopped baby artichoke, Parma ham and oregano and flat parsley, stirring in a little walnut oil and garlic. It's a simple dish - but delicious."
Presentation is also important. His use of Vitelotte potatoes to create blue potato crisps is one example. "My first priority is taste, of course," he notes, "but yes, I think about colour and how the food looks on the plate."
A main course of wild Scottish duck - "one of our biggest sellers" - is served in two parts, with the leg prepared as a confit and the breast glazed with honey and spices and served on a sweet and sour sauce.
Desserts are treated with equal attention, with options including a soft chocolate quenelle with black tea crŠme anglaise and crunchy almonds, and a banana and pineapple flamb‚, presented as a brochette, flavoured with rum and infused rosemary.
Clientele at the 45-seat La Riviera tends to be a mixture of well-heeled locals, business people and guests staying at the hotel. "We have people from all over the world," Lefebvre says, "with lots of Americans, and most are well-travelled and interested in food."
But does Lefebvre feel that Inverness is ready for modern French cooking? He admits that some of the regulars took a little persuading, and recognises that his style may be a little too different for some, but now, in his third month, he feels confident. "When I see the bookings and we're full on Friday and Saturday nights," he says, "I know I'm doing something right."
La Riviera restaurant
Glenmoriston Town House hotel
20 Ness Bank
Tel: 01463 223777
What's on the menu (Two courses £29, three courses £35)
- Pan-seared scallops on a butternut pur‚e, girolles and almond, black truffle frothy jus
- Carpaccio of ham hock, calamares à la Setoise, chickpeas and broad beans, crispy onions, basil dressing
- Pan-seared foie gras with caramelised carrot and a passion fruit sauce
- Baked fillet of brill, vegetable glazed in a confit of lemon dressing, coriander pesto
- Fillet of large Dover sole, artichoke ravioli, rocket and artichoke poêlé and olive jus
- Roasted rack of lamb with stuffed baby vegetables in a Niçoise style
- Poached fig in a spicy red wine, confit of olives, olive oil ice-cream
- Apple pain perdu, Banyuls caramel and truffle ice-cream
- Soft chocolate quenelle with black tea crème anglaise and crunchy almonds