A review by Marina O’Loughlin of The Guardian. Jan 2016
Not enough attention is paid to bread in restaurants. The new Nordic practice of delivering it as its own course with all due ceremony is fine by me. Bread is both signifier and statement of intent, be it Michelin-chirpsing pancetta-studded brioche or heated-up industrial baguette that might as well have “avoid” stamped through it like a stick of seaside rock.
The bread at Lake Road Kitchen is perfect: not-sour sourdough (it’s to do with keeping the starter out of the fridge, apparently, and checking it as regularly as a mother does a newborn). The crumb is enchantingly springy, the crust all satisfying, well-fired crunch. It comes with “virgin” butter: newly churned, slightly granular from the buttermilk, a lactic, creamy joy with the shelf life of a mayfly. Spooned thickly on to the bread and sprinkled with rock salt – paradise.
That virgin butter, for spods like me, is a thundering klaxon. Yes, chef/owner James Cross has the almost inevitable Noma background. (One of these days I’m going to be able to write about a Nordic-inclined restaurant without referencing Noma; today ain’t that day.) With its Scandi lake-shack look, its locavorism, its fermenting, pickling and foraging, the restaurant wears its credentials as proudly as a toddler with a birthday badge.
Hot on the heels of the bread come meaty little snails, crowned with bitter watercress, leaching sticky, dark sauce and dotted on a plate half-painted with something green; it’s miso, made in-house not from soy beans but beans, peas and, I think, barley. This is just fierce: it tastes thrilling, resonant, alive.
Scallop with fermented apple puree spiked by dill oil. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
We’ve chosen the five-course tasting menu; there’s also an eight- course, and à la carte. It has been devised with real insight into the pace of a meal, the progression of tastes and ingredients. Delicate scallop might have struggled after the snail blockbuster, but this fat number is cooked until caramelised, and comes with fermented apple puree spiked by dill oil and the odd, cucumber-scented leaf of salad burnet: small, exciting jolts of flavour in each mouthful. Then a mighty assault on the taste buds: duck egg in a cradle of charred-edge onion petals, the allium theme continued with surprisingly classic sauce soubise and a powerhouse dressing of ramsons and capers.
By comparison, Scottish red deer with leeks vinaigrette seems almost ascetic, just the meat and veg, a gloss of meat jus, dots of sheeny black winter-truffle puree. But any sense of restraint flees at first bite: sweet, gamey meat, smoky, acerbic vegetable, the sexy reek of fungus.
Finally, not one of those modish, deconstructed desserts that look to have been dropped from a great height, but a perfect sliver of sea buckthorn tart, fragrant curd and fragile, just-bitter buckwheat crust with Italian meringue and a slick of the berries’ virtually unsweetened puree, an electrifying, pleasurable slap in the chops.
Yes, I’ve been sniffy about foraging in the past – I’ve suffered desserts lavishly dandruffed with weeds – but here it’s less trend-box-ticking, more way of life. During my trip to Cumbria, I also go to L’Enclume (two Michelin stars), given that there’s a real overlap in ethos. But while L’Enclume’s undeniably exquisite food makes me less of a Simon Rogan agnostic, the newcomer’s simplicity of approach and purity of delivery makes its stellar colleague’s bells and whistles look a bit last century. You sense that nobody here is breathing heavily over the tweezers.
A meal without a single missed beat is as unusual as a non-menopausal Paul Hollywood fan. But this is one of them. Service, produce, timing, execution, beautifully kept cheeses, clever wine list: it’s all a gal could hope for.
Look, I’ll confess my visit was motivated by the floods, by wanting to do my bit for Cumbria in a way that didn’t involve sandbags, fully anticipating a scrabble to be positive without being patronising. Instead, I’m silenced by my own prejudice: this talented team would be stars wherever they landed. That they have chosen to land in a small town given to Gore-Tex retailers and tearooms (one local stalwart offers “Classic Prawn cocktail topped with Rocker Fellow sauce”) is cause to marvel. And to travel: Ambleside also has the excellent Old Stamp House to make a weekend of it. Lake Road Kitchen is that rarest of things, the genuine destination restaurant.
‘It was local wisdom, not the chef’s success on Great British Menu, that led me here, and I’m glad it did: it’s a little treasure
Lake Road Kitchen Lake Road, Ambleside, Cumbria, 015394 22012. Open Weds-Sun, 6-9.30pm. About £40 a head à la carte; five-course tasting menu £55, eight-course £75, all plus drinks and service.
Value for money: 9/10