The Forest Side, Grasmere: Review

My penchant for posh restaurants petered out some time ago.

Those Michelin marathons tended to be too heavy, too much effort, and too self-satisfied to be enjoyed as a meal out should be. Indifference or gout (or both) were nailed on by the time the second intermediate course arrived at the table. Which was usually about six and a half hours in.

That’s not to say that a kitchen’s astute cooking couldn’t be admired for its boundless technique and serious skill, of course, just that sometimes a well-crusted pizza and a litre of rough red could make for a more satisfying distribution of the hard-earned dollar.

Though maybe, in my mission to swerve yet another over-reduced sauce, I’ve been missing out.

This trip to The Forest Side was booked as a surprise trip for The Other. For her, a Nice Meal at a Nice Restaurant isn’t quite enough; it’s the addition of a Nice Room in a Nice Hotel that really makes for a Nice Birthday. A demand that brings us into the spendy spendy world of restaurants with rooms.

Grey-bricked and gothic, with a fairy tale touch of the Hans Christian Andersen’s about it, The Forest Side certainly fulfils the Nice Hotel requirement. From dropping the bags off on arrival to checking out the next morning, the hotel’s front of house team are all naturals. The dramatic backdrop of the Lake District helps but this place has charm and character of its own.

And although it’s plush and you know there’ll be little to no chance of bagging half a Boddingtons in the bar, a playlist including your Arctic Monkeys and your Franz Ferdinands ensures the atmosphere never feels forced or fusty.

There are two menu options in the evening: four courses or eight. Knowing that prior to either there’d be snacks designed to shovel down in one go, and that we could chuck in some cheese, and that I should really limit the time available in which she could neck fifteen-quid glasses of champagne, we (I) plumped for the shorter version.

And what snacks. One, a crisp-shelled croquette filled with molten pig’s head – in essence a liquid pork scratching – is as good a reason as any to nip out to reception and book a return visit. Then bread, a milk loaf with a glaze so polished it could be a clay model freshly extracted from the kiln.

Beetroot-swervers may well be persuaded to reconsider their outlook by Paul Leonard and his team, who for the first course proper have put the root vegetable through its paces and come up with a standout dish full of texture and zing. Here are rehydrated ribbons packing a well-judged twang of pickle tangled with fudgy cubes of the stuff in and amongst. Diced apple, a delicate juice, and a thick goats milk yoghurt complete the happy story.

(Side note: I’m ordinarily suspicious of wine flights, primarily because I’m made for swigging and the flights are made for sipping. However, the English Sauvignon Blanc matched to the beetroot – bright and lively – is a hit.)

Belying some solid graft undertaken in the kitchen, presentation at The Forest Side is spare and unfussy.

A simple piece of steamed cod on a brown shrimp foam will have been, I’m guessing, anything but simple to prepare. That fish – formed somehow into a thick puck and now resembling an oversized scallop – has been cooked to the precise second and peels cleanly away from itself with minimal persuasion. The scent of that saucy shrimp foam (or foamy shrimp sauce) – brisk but with body – will transport you directly to a rainy seaside town of your own choosing.

The kitchen’s light touch extends to rich, gamey animal flesh, too, meaning there’s no sign of flagging when a wedge of venison appears before us. It’s a plate of Autumn.

Cooked and rested until the same deep shade of purple as the beetroot a couple of courses previously, the meat slices smoothly but maintains a rugged bite, reflective of an active life spent ambling around the nearby fells while laughing at inappropriately dressed out-of-towners like me.

A scattering of bitter brassicas, possibly plucked from the garden, conceals a neat ragu of the cheaper cuts, surely bolstered here by a tangy splash of Lea and Perrins. And rightly so. The accompanying sauce is all light consommé in appearance but ludicrously supercharged in its depth of flavour. It’s a sauce that sums up The Forest Side and is all that is best about this level of cooking. And yes, I hate to be that pretentious about sauce but here we are.

Diligently, our all-seeing waitress spots the need for more bread, which is put to the best possible use.

In a good way, dessert doesn’t feel too desserty and is akin to chasing down a bite of Easter egg with a fruity wine gum. The herbally blackcurrant veers towards the semi-savoury, and the chocolate element is restrained. It is an absurdly elegant thing which, by now, goes without saying.

There follows cheese, and it’s the good stuff from The Courtyard Dairy. The selection is lively. Left to its own devices it could have probably oozed itself out of the kitchen, up the table leg and onto the plate, but is instead wheeled across the floor by trolley. Heads turn. Those who weren’t planning on ordering the fromage were going to do so now.

If you bag the right table at The Forest Side you can eat your tea looking out over the hotel’s handsome grounds, from where some of that tea will have been sourced. If not, no biggy, it’s a pleasant room to be in, broad and high-ceilinged. Tucked into the corner, Leonard patrols the pass of his semi-open kitchen.

Service is pro and personable. Each member of the team bringing out a dish or pouring some wine or offering a hot towel “in case you need to clean up” (guilty) does so with warmth and elan. It’s a team who’ve got this hospitality lark sewn up.

Unlike some of those experiences I alluded to, tea at The Forest Side passes swiftly in a happy and engaging blur. A reminder that the high-end doesn’t have to be a slave to the serious.

Visit The Forest Side – dinner, bed and breakfast from £349.

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