Monday, 1 July 2013

A Bit of The Trip. Restaurant Review: Holbeck Ghyll, Windermere

The name Holbeck Ghyll has been firmly lodged in my memory since it featured in an episode of the brilliant series The Trip featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Kasia and I headed over to the Lake District this weekend gone to meet up with my folks and have a look round Beatrix Potter's Hilltop Farm, something Kasia has wanted to do for ages. Ever-eager to crowbar a posh lunch into an afternoon out, and unable to get a booking for the bargainous-sounding set lunch at The Samling, Holbeck Ghyll it was. I'd read some not-so-great reviews elsewhere (for example here and here), some claiming that the Michelin star held here wasn't perhaps justified, but they were all from a while back, so I was more than happy to find out for myself.

As an aside, if you like both Beatrix Potter and mingling with Japanese people, you'll adore Hill Top farm. I read somewhere that up to 25% of the visitors to the place hail from that part of the world. Why? Something to do with the unlikely combo of Renee Zellweger, David Beckham, the Japanese school system and something called kawairashii. Don't say you never learn anything here.

The path to Hill Top Farm
The farm cottage itself is preserved, apparently, just as she left it, and is well worth a visit if you're into that sort of thing. If you do fancy going, turn up early. The cottage itself is pretty tiny and I'm sure gets swamped at times. I was almost more interested in the gardens, which were very nice. I noted with smug satisfaction that our climbing beans are doing far better than the ones in Beatrix Potter's veg garden. Bitchy or what.

Anyway, after all that excitement we were well ready for lunch. First impressions of Holbeck Ghyll were that it was a pretty gorgeous country house hotel, with some serious wood, and arts-and-crafts type stained glass on the way in. Bit like a mini Cragside. Views over Windermere and beyond were stunning.

Canapes were served in a lounge while we scanned the menus, and consisted of nice-enough olives, plus breadsticks with some addictively good truffle cream.

A quick note on the menu: their website trumps the fact that you can get a two course lunch for £26. True, but this would restrict you to only one starter and one main, while the rest of the mains cost nearly that much alone. Not quite disingenuous, but maybe just a whiff of sly...

Once inside the handsome oak-panelled dining room, we were quickly accosted by a deliciously rich amuse of a mushroom veloute type thing. It had a nice twang of acidity to balance the earthiness of the mushrooms. How often does it happen that the freebie at the start is a strong contender for best bit of the meal? Very often, I reckon. There was a choice of four bread rolls, served warm; all very nice.

My starter was smoked salmon with beetroot in various guises and horseradish creme fraiche. I'm not usually a fan of cold starters, but this was good. Very pretty plateful, as indeed all of them were, with toothpick-dotted spots very much to the fore. Three different colours of beetroot were judiciously pickled which worked great with the rich salmon and creme fraiche which, to be very fussy, could have used a bit more horseradish thwack.

Cartmel valley smoked salmon, textures of beetroot, horseradish creme fraiche
Kasia went for the premium option of langoustines, lobster and remoulade. This looked good on the plate, but was judged to be a bit lacking in oomph.

Salad of warm Scottish langoustines with lobster and celeriac remoulade
My main of lamb, shallot puree and rosemary jus was a solid plate of food. The lamb was clearly good quality, having a lively, slightly livery pungency to it. The fondant potato was perfectly done, i'd have been happy to see a few more of those, ditto the confit garlic. Being picky again, the lamb was a bit overcooked at one end; I would be interested to know if they're sous-videing the meats or going old school here. I'm guessing the latter. Also the jus, while properly reduced and lovely and glossy, didn't have much rosemary flavour going on, which might have made the whole thing really sing. Still very nice though.

Best end of Cumbrian lamb with shallot puree and rosemary jus
Kasia's beef was cooked just about bang-on and for fillet, was full of flavour. The wasabi gnocci were nice, but again could've done with some more poke from the fiery root. The oxtail bon-bon thing was judged a great success, and the sauce was sufficiently reduced to have almost marmitey levels of umami going on. Another posh meal truism: how often does the "lesser" cut of protein on a plate outshine its supposedly more cultured sibling? Very often, I reckon.

Fillet of Aberdeen Angus, crispy boneless oxtail, braised salsify, watercress, wasabi gnocci
In other main course news, my mum's sea bass was very good. An accurately cooked bit a fish that had clearly some from the side of a whopper of an animal.

Sufficiently fuller of belly, and lighter of wallet, we eschewed desserts and finished with some powerfully good coffee and truffles outside on a terrace, taking in the full majesty of the view. On a sunny day, which this wasn't quite, I can't think of a better spot for an afternoon tea.

So, what's the final verdict? I definitely enjoyed lunch at Holbeck Ghyll. Service was friendly and attentive, although we were one of only four tables in the dining room. The cooking was very solid, if unspectacular. Everthing was nice, without eliciting too many oohs or aahs. With just a couple of small tweaks here and there it could have been triumphant. I had a glass of cracking house Chilean Carmenere which brought the lamb to life. As to whether that Michelin star is merited or not, who am I to say.

Meals like this do leave me wondering about how much I really want to see "premium" produce on the plate though; fillet of beef, best end of lamb, lobster, etc. All these things can be, of course, lovely, but often the depth of flavour, compared to cheaper and longer cooked cuts, just isn't there, although the price per plate certainly is. Holbeck Ghyll is styling itself very much as a luxury retreat in the lakes, so perhaps this demands that these are the main ingredients used.

As we wandered down the path back to the cars, I was tempted, Coogan-style, to give a big "A-HA" across the valley, but chickened out. Maybe next time, as an epilogue to an afternoon spent munching crustless sandwiches and cakes. That sounds good.


Holbeck Ghyll Website
Holbeck Ghyll on Twitter


  1. Thanks for reviewing this place. I've been unsure whether to book for a long time but your review pretty much confirms why I've held off for so long! Solid but unspectacular cooking not worth the long trip or high prices! Cheers.

    1. Glad to be of service! I wouldn't actually dis-recommend the place at all, but there are certainly more exciting options not far away. That Simon Rogan chap has a nice place...


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