Despite the emergence of a host of international franchises and chains lining our cities’ high streets, we’re still in the middle of a revolution in British cuisine – albeit of the velvet variety. Up and down the country, some extremely talented and passionate home-grown chefs are showcasing the very best in UK produce in a uniquely British way.
While London plays host to a sizeable proportion of them, some choose to produce their art away from the bright lights of the capital and immerse themselves in the regions they represent. One such ‘artiste’ is Cumbrian-born Kevin Tickle at the Forest Side Hotel in Grasmere (full review here), deep in the Lake District. Previously of L’Enclume and Rogan & Co. in Cartmel – less than 30 miles down the road – Kevin has joined forces with hotelier Andrew Wildsmith to produce one of the best dining experiences this humble reviewer has had outside the Big Smoke.
On arrival, I decide to take up resident mixologist Bruno on his cocktail recommendation of the delicate but refreshing New English Martini; one of his own creations inspired by the foraging/kitchen garden on the hotel’s grounds. This sets the theme for the rest of the evening; Kevin works hard and successfully to blend a lifelong forager’s skill for finding unique flavours in nature with highly-skilled, classical cooking.
With several tasting menus to choose from, I plump in the middle and go for the delightfully named, seven-course and drink-paired ‘The L’al ‘Un’ (‘The Little One’ to us non-Cumbrians). After dainty amuse-bouches of celeriac, apple puree and black pudding as well as a fantastic-looking Ruscombe cheese cracker served on a rather-less-dainty slab of wood, the starter of seaweed broth, kohlrabi, surf clams and herbs arrives; a great combination of flavours from both earth and sea. As always with taster menus, a dish comes along that one wouldn’t normally order given an à la carte menu. The next dish is one of those; a surprisingly delicate duck heart salad with lemon thyme, turnip and pickled green walnut – proving heart, if cooked properly, is lighter than liver.
Alongside these naturally-inspired dishes is the pairing of biodynamic and organic wines from across Europe; including a great example of a Roditis from Greece and an unusually light but definitely flavourful 2008 Barolo. But the delight of this pairing is the addition of non-viticultural offerings – namely a strong, golden ale from nearby Stringers Brewery with the aforementioned duck heart and an in-house-creation of a Rhubynni cocktail with the corresponding rhubarb dessert.
The next two courses prove to be the highlight of the evening – a delicious seafood dish of North Atlantic cod with shrimp is followed closely by my stand-out dish of dry, aged ‘middle white’ with a perfectly cooked skin accompanied by cured pollen, birch sap from the trees in the hotel’s grounds and celery stems; it’s a quite breath-taking blend of flavours that work perfectly. For those with sweeter palettes, Kevin’s sweet cheese parfait with sea buckthorn and colts foot followed by a delightful rhubarb, burnt butter and sweet cicely concoction will more than satiate. With just enough room for a few slithers of British and Irish cheeses, I can reflect on this smorgasbord of sensations.
What Kevin Tickle has managed to achieve – aided seamlessly by Joe, Mafalda and the whole front-of-house team – is superb. His strong relationship with the region coupled with a deep understanding of using sustainable and natural ingredients shines through and has enabled him to produce an outstanding set of menus that provoke the diner’s curiosity and delight with each dish. He manages to capture the heart and soul of not only the hotel but his beloved Cumbria on a plate – and sometimes a piece of slate or even a slab of wood.
The restaurant, already widely recognised locally, was recently awarded the ‘Best Kept Secret’ title at Tatler’s Restaurant awards. Having experienced it for myself, I can confirm it won’t be long before Kevin’s talents are recognised at the very highest levels. Get yourself there quick, before it becomes a not-so-well kept secret…