I recently discovered an outstanding Scottish restaurant about 40 miles west of Chicago in Campton Hills, Illinois. Balmoral Restaurant just celebrated its first anniversary in July, and ordinarily, I wouldn’t write about a place with such a short track record. However, when I dined there in June, I was so impressed with the quality of the food, the scope of the menu, and the energy that Balmoral’s owner, Colin Smith, has put into creating the restaurant, that it moved to the top of my list for this month’s column.
A LOVE OF TRADITIONAL SCOTTISH CUISINE
Colin was born in Perthshire, Scotland, and he grew up eating food with a direct connection to the land. He shared several food-related childhood memories with me, including guddling trout (tickling trout to trance them so they can be caught by hand) and foraging for natural bounty such as wild mushrooms and rose hips.
Colin trained as a chef and worked at restaurants in Scotland and England. After learning the ropes, he bought a string of underperforming restaurants and pubs, turning each one around before selling it and moving on to his next project. Eventually, Colin moved to the US, where he put his talents to work for a company selling a line of quality flavoring products for the foodservice industry.
During a 2013 trip to Scotland, Colin visited Balmoral Castle, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s majestic Highland retreat. He was so captivated by the grandeur of Balmoral’s formal dining room that he wanted to recreate the experience in a restaurant of his own, reasoning that everyone should have the opportunity to dine like royalty.
He purchased the building in Campton Hills in 2017 and began creating his own Balmoral, putting an impressive amount of thought into every detail of the restaurant, from its design and décor to the quality of the food and service, to the regal china, cutlery, and glassware that graces every table. His goal was to create a fine Scottish dining experience centered around the traditional dishes of his youth, especially the ones served at Sunday dinner when families would sit down to a meal at tables set with their best china, crystal, and silver.
Colin calls Balmoral a “drive to” venue because people are willing to drive a bit further and spend a bit more to enjoy a meal at the restaurant, particularly on special occasions. Guests are encouraged to take their time as they relax and enjoy the Balmoral experience.
A WIDE SELECTION OF SCOTTISH DISHES
Colin also describes Balmoral as “the only truly Scottish restaurant in America” because he believes it offers the most extensive menu of Scottish dishes in the US. A large part of the menu is based on what Colin fondly refers to as “granny’s recipes.” This includes a mix of family favorites, recipes culled from old Scottish cookbooks, and dishes he’s perfected in his restaurants over the years. He spent a year experimenting with the recipes until they tasted exactly the way he remembered them from his youth. “Food influences a lot of memories,” Colin says, noting that customers often tell him that they’re enjoying dishes they haven’t tasted since they were children.
Balmoral’s appetizer and soup offerings include Scotch eggs, soused herring, and Cullen skink, a thick soup made with smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions. The smoked haddock is prepared in the traditional Scottish manner by Stonington Seafood of Maine. On my visit, I enjoyed a tasty cup of cock-a-leekie soup and the Crofters cheese plate, which had an excellent selection of Scottish cheddar, stilton, and crowdie cheeses.
Entrees include Campsie Glen Chicken (the tender chicken with smoked bacon and Stilton sauce is Colin’s signature dish and one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings), Scottish salmon, shepherd’s pie, venison, pheasant, lamb, braised rabbit, and authentic Scottish fish and chips made with Scottish haddock. You’ll also find Scotland’s national dish, haggis, which is prepared by a butcher in Maine using a 150-year-old recipe. I ordered the Highland beef suet pudding, a mixture of tender braised beef and vegetables encased in a traditional suet pastry and steamed to perfection. Desserts include sticky toffee pudding, gooseberry and apple crumble, spotted dick, and a delicious bread and butter pudding.
Balmoral offers a 20% discount on food for seniors, teachers, police officers, firefighters, armed forces members, doctors, and nurses. Be sure to let your server know if you qualify.
A WHISKY LOVER’S DELIGHT
Balmoral serves more than 150 different whiskies, which you can order in two-ounce pours or in a variety of flights, including the Speyside flight (five whiskies from the Speyside region of Scotland) and flights of whiskies with smoky or peaty profiles. The “taste of the years” flight lets you sample a single brand of whisky at varying ages. Balmoral’s interesting (and expensive) selection of old and rare single malts will appeal to dedicated whisky enthusiasts.
The restaurant also stocks more than two dozen Scottish, Irish, and English beers and ciders, including brands such as Belhaven, Innis & Gunn, McEwan’s, O’Hara’s, Robinsons, and Samuel Smith’s. Like the Queen Vic British Pub, which I featured in my August column, Balmoral doesn’t serve American beers.
SPECIAL DINING EXPERIENCES
In addition to its regular menu, Balmoral also offers several special dining experiences, including Scottish afternoon tea and a special four-course Taste of Scotland menu that changes monthly. The tea service features finger sandwiches, assorted cakes (including Dundee cake and black bun when available), fresh scones, and treats such as Walker’s shortbread and Tunnock’s teacakes, which Colin includes because they’re beloved by many Scots.
On Sundays, Balmoral offers Scottish breakfasts and roast dinners. Be sure to arrive hungry if you plan to order the full Scottish breakfast, which includes a fried egg, black and white puddings, Lorne sausage, a banger, back bacon, tattie scone, fried bread, Heinz baked beans, potatoes, fried mushrooms, and grilled tomato. If you’re not up for this hefty feast, other options include smoked kippers and boiled eggs with toast soldiers.
Colin’s exuberant love for traditional food shines on Sunday afternoons when Balmoral offers four different roast dinners. The beef, lamb, chicken, and ham dinners are served with herb pudding, roasted and mashed potatoes, and three veg. All four choices usually sell out, so be sure to get there early.
Balmoral also offers a unique catering service. “We bring the whole restaurant to you,” Colin says, “including crystal glasses. It’s like Downton Abbey.”
EXPECT TO HAVE A GREAT TIME
Colin believes the key to success is ensuring that customers experience the same high standard of food and service on every visit. “They come out to have a great time,” Colin says. “You need to make sure they have that great time.” Colin enjoys checking in with customers, so don’t be surprised if he stops by your table during your visit. “It’s fun,” he says of his duties as host. “I really enjoy coming to work.”
Balmoral Restaurant is located at 40W099 Illinois Route 64 in Campton Hills, Illinois. If you love Scottish food, or if you were intrigued by the Scottish foods I highlighted in my first Eating British in America column, then be sure to add Balmoral to your bucket list. It’s definitely worth the trip.