Wednesday 26 November 2014

Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside.

I'm still buzzing after our dinner at Lake Road Kitchen in Ambleside, over a week ago. We had planned to just visit Old Stamp House and maybe have a light tea in a pub later on that evening. Then I got a message from someone in the industry recommending it and he really knows his onions.
Well travelled, knowledgeable food blogger Cumbriafoodie raved about it too, so I knew we'd have to try and get a reservation even if it meant doing two taster menus in one day and breaking our budget. The search for better and better restaurants becomes like a ridiculous never ending obsession and the more it continues, the less satisfied you become with most places closer to home.
I'm so glad we pushed the boat out. It turned out to be a very inspiring trip. Along with the Man Behind the Curtain in Leeds, it was the most exciting find of the year for us. This is interesting in itself, as in some ways they're polar opposites in style. But we loved them both.
If you put a gun to my head and asked me what I'd thought about foraging before this meal, I'd have said that in all honesty, I couldn't care less. I'm just bothered about what's on my plate and how delicious it is. But listening to head chef James Cross talk so passionately about his early morning foraging trips out on beaches and forests, it would take a complete cynic not to be impressed. This 'North European' style has a real emphasis on using as much quality local product and foraging where possible. World famous chef Rene Redzepi has turned this into an all encompassing philosophy.
James has worked (sometimes 100 hour weeks he told me) at Noma and at Per Se in New York. Both feature highly on foodies bucket lists as I'm sure you know. And that experience brings so much knowledge, work ethic and passion which is very evident when it comes to his style of cooking.
But less of the waffle, what about the food? We agreed on a taster menu which was priced at £65 each. We just sat back and the courses kept on coming for the next three hours. (Sometimes a little slowly but I'm notoriously light on patience and there's just the two of them cooking).
A large part of the whole experience was chatting with the staff who were so friendly and extremely knowledgeable, especially manager George Norrie. Honestly, these guys together in my humble opinion could go far. This is just the beginning for them.
To start, Buttermilk Fried Guinea Hen, charred romaine, Caesar sauce. Nice little juicy chicken bites, full of flavour. Enjoyable but nothing too much to get excited about. Like a very superior version of something you might find in the Northern Quarter but so much better. Then the bread arrived. Man, was it good.
Home-made of course, they explained it was made using a sourdough technique. (But it's not actually sourdough). It's as fine as any I've had in Michelin star restaurants. I always judge a restaurant by the bread they serve and this is simply world class. The texture of it, springy and airy with a lovely rich crunchy crust. Naturally I devoured the lot and had seconds.
Raw and Cured Norwegian Salmon, Tartare, Yoghurt, Rye, Wood Sorrel, so fresh and clean and delicate, the quality of the raw salmon really shines through. The product really is king at this place with an obsessive attention to detail and a demand for the very highest quality. You might expect every decent restaurant is like that but it's not always the case.
Roasted organic carrot, buckwheat truffled sheep's yoghurt, pickles, sheep sorrel. Inspired by Noma I'm guessing, where a 'vegetable can be the 'star of the show'. Yeah it's just a carrot, some might say, but it's a mighty fine one. I can appreciate a dish like this but can I really love it? Possibly not. Mrs B did though.
Slow Cooked Octopus was a lovely dish, not one iota of rubberyness, the tentacles were as soft and tender as you could imagine.
Everything was great so far, but it wasn't until the Scallop Mornay arrived that we really were knocked off our feet. The actual large scallop itself was so good. We were deep in Michelin star territory now with this twist on the classic dish. We were genuinely sad when it was over.
We continued with The Last Cep of the season. Oh. My. God. They'd foraged this themselves especially for us. How impressive is that? It's all part of the story of the dish. This is what you're paying for when you eat somewhere like this. (And it's a bargain too right now).
The mushroom was so beautiful, soft and full of deep woodland flavour, with a rich sticky, meaty sauce, and the duck egg too. Wow! One of the finest dishes we've eaten all year.
Strangely, the Aged Saddleback Pork dish next, was a disappointment. The texture was all wrong, too tough with very little flavour. The only miss-step of the night. But they've not been open that long, it's still a very high hit rate.
We were very much back on track with the 90 day aged beef. George brought the piece of meat out for us to inspect and explained that it's at it's best at 125 days (and will be served then in the restaurant).
I had thought that the difference in flavour would be fairly subtle. But it was absolutely immense, up there with the best beef I've ever tasted. The flavour was so rich, with so much more intensity. It would be obvious to anyone that we are dealing with a completely superior product that clearly requires knowledge and expertise to treat.
Another one of the most impressive dishes of the year made even better with little nuggets of intense bone marrow. Christ almighty! As if we couldn't love this place any more, George gave us a little taste of some vintage champagne.
Neither of us are huge lovers of champagne, but this again was so different to your standard stuff, so much softer and less acidic, I could get used to this sort of living.
Again though, it wasn't just the wonderful product and food, it was their infectious enthusiasm and knowledge which played such a huge part to the enjoyment of the meal as a whole and sets this place apart for us.
We finished off a very memorable night with a light, pleasant Meadowsweet Mousse, semi dried plums, greengage ice. With a taster menu, I'm happier with one dessert rather than three or four that for me are superfluous.
On the way to the restaurant we'd sat outside a busy local pub for a quick pre-meal drink to encourage the much needed hunger, necessary for a big meal like this. I'd said to Mrs Bacon, suppose this place now is like L'Enclume was several years ago? And we're there at the beginning of somewhere that could be as successful and as high in stature as there?
It would be no exaggeration to say that after this meal we believe that it may well happen. The passion, talent and knowledge along with the head spinning drive of James and George will take them a long way I think. Three of those dishes will stay long in my memory, the scallop, the beef and the cep. These really were up there with the finest dishes we've eaten the year. This is seriously high quality cooking. I told you I was still buzzing about it didn't I?
*Our bill came to £153 with a bottle of wine and was paid in full.
To see more photos click here.
An article about foraging and Lake road Kitchen here.

Lake Road Kitchen. on Urbanspoon

Monday 24 November 2014

The Drunken Duck Inn, Ambleside.

I had the hangover from hell. That pounding, pain over one eye, constant unrelenting throbbing, mixed with the self hating knowledge that I'd done this to myself. I felt as sick as a dog. We were in the car, heating cranked up to maximum, looking out over the miserable grey lake like a couple of pensioners on holiday. It was raining of course and I was going over the previous day in my mind. After drinking wine throughout the long tasting menu lunch at L'Enclume, I'd thought it was a bright idea to carry on drinking beer in the pubs of Cartmel. Oh dear, beer and wine never mix well do they? We were planning on going to The Drunken Duck that day but were forced to cancel and drove home in silence. It was the lunch that got away.
That was a year ago and there would be no mistakes this time. Even though the previous evening had been boozy, we made sure we necked loads of water through the epic taster menu at Lake Road Kitchen. And we'd religiously stuck to white wine.
So we joined the small bunch of folk waiting for The Drunken Duck to open at midday. There's no booking in the day, it's strictly first come first served.
Even though it was Sunday, the lunch service is usually a pretty informal affair. The lunchtime menu is small but well formed. I took a lovely pint of one of their own beers made for them by Barngates brewery; Cat Nap. At 3.6%, it's an ideal daytime session ale, pleasantly hoppy and well balanced.
We joined the other dog owners in the bar. As the previous day had been such a big one with two taster menus, two light dishes were just right for us.
Rueben sandwich, horseradish, chips. (£12).
We had one of these Reuben's at the famous Katz's Deli in New York once. I remember it well as I had indigestion all afternoon, something that normally never troubles me. These were the thinner toastie version. But bigger isn't always better. The perfect combination of crunchy toasted bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese and gherkin was just spot on. I reluctantly handed over the smallest portion I could to Mrs Bacon.
Her Charred mackerel on sourdough, dill pickles, horseradish Crème fraîche. (£8), was decent too, a nice balance of fresh flavours.
And the chips, the chips were just right. Medium thickness but crispy and crunchy.
The food in the evening is a grander affair by all accounts. It looks like we'll have to save our pennies and stay here (the rooms look wonderful but it's not cheap). 
It was worth waiting a year for our little light lunch at the Drunken Duck Inn. It's pretty much a perfect country pub. A beautifully realised interior, friendly staff, great food and ale. What more could you possibly want?
Drunken Duck on Urbanspoon *The final bill was £20 plus drinks, paid in full. 

Wednesday 19 November 2014

The Old Stamp House, Ambleside.

I've been wanting to try the food of chef Ryan Blackburn since Jay Rayner's great review of Cottage in the Wood a few years back. He has a very impressive CV, including previous positions at Michelin starred Holbeck Ghyll and Martin Wishart. My budget just won't allow me too many visits to these established high end restaurants unfortunately. Luckily for me, several months ago he opened up for himself (with his brother Craig) still in The Lakes, in the centre of Ambleside. As I'm a pauper with very expensive tastes, my problem can be overcome by going to restaurants like this. Young talented chefs who are very well trained and really know what they're doing but perhaps they're not quite so well known yet. So they're not charging an arm and a leg for essentially a similar standard of food.
In this case, the taster menu at lunchtime is an absolute steal at just £35 for 7 courses. (It's a shade under £50 in the evening).
We'd both had bouts of illness and were forced to cancel our reservation once, so when it came time to our weekend away, we were in desperate need for a treat.
The Old Stamp House is in a cave like downstairs, a series of small adjoining rooms. Simply decorated yet still cosy, apparently this was the former work place of Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth, at the time 'Distributer of Stamps', hence the name.
We began with Black Pudding Bon Bons, Cumberland Sauce. Great little bites, I can imagine the same thing but with the sauce inside, giving you an explosion of liquid as you bite into it.
Potted Shrimps, cauliflower and spiced mead velouté was our first real 'wow' moment. That silent exchange of nods and raised eyebrows as we dug in. Gorgeously silky smooth, with a beautiful, buttery, luscious texture and so wonderfully bold and flavoursome. The bread was used to full effect to mop up every single drop.
Ravenglass Crab. Avocado, pink grapefruit and radish. As the last course impressed with the full strength of flavour, this was delicate, light and fresh. Nothing is extraneous on the plate, those little green blobs of avocado sorbet were gorgeous little bursts of flavour that melt on your tongue.
Another real winner next, the Glazed pork cheek, queenies, artichoke and chestnut. Again, faultless.
We opted to swap a course. I wasn't coming all this way without trying a signature dish of sorts, Herdwick Hogget from local Yewtree Farm, braised shoulder, seared loin and crispy breast, cheese gnocchi, broccoli purée. If you've never tried hogget before, you have a real treat coming. It's just so rich in flavour, you can see why Simon Rogan is so fond of using this 'young sheep' (it's older than a lamb, not yet mutton). Easily one of the dishes of the year, just so bold and powerful. Again, the devil is in the detail, the green broccoli purée, a lovely accompaniment.
There was also a cheese course with a difference, Blue Winnow cheese, fig and Westmorland pepper bread like everything else here, just worked so well. 
Forced Rhubarb Cumbrian Gingerbread is about a perfect a pud as you can get for me. I adore rhubarb anyway, the slightly sour flavour with the sweet creamy sorbet, so measured and so effective.
The taster menu we had at Old Stamp House was completely faultless. It was such an enjoyable experience with polite, friendly service that was never over intrusive. (I'm personally not a fan of them taking your water and wine away from you and insisting on pouring after every single mouthful, who needs that? This never happened here.)
The food here is well considered and accurate, using local ingredients to full effect. It was a place I could imagine taking my parents to. As none 'foodies' I know they too would appreciate the food which is an extremely superior version of traditional Lakeland cuisine if you like. Perhaps you wouldn't come here for mad innovation but who needs that when the food is so enjoyable? (And that is now available elsewhere in the town, more of that later).
The bottom line is that Chef Ryan Blackburn really knows how to cook. He understands flavours that work and how to deliver them perfectly on the plate, simply and without fuss. It's a guaranteed dead cert this place and at these prices I really couldn't recommend it highly enough.

Old Stamp House on Urbanspoon