Forest Side Review:
As Editor of Wellies and Wine, I’m no stranger to The Forest Side, having visited several times before to interview both Greg Stephenson, Marketing Manager and Bruno Villas, their now-departed Bar Manager. Invited to try their 6 course lunchtime Tasting Menu last week, I took my father as plus one (passionate about the Lakes and a committed foodie freak). Owned by Andrew Wildsmith, the Forest Side is one of three hotels within the Wildsmith Hotels group, the other two located in Windermere (The Ryebeck) and just outside Kirkby Lonsdale (Hipping Hall).
I love the drive up to the great house, a huge gothic edifice built at the end of the 19th century by a rich industrialist (a common historical theme up here). Neatly tucked alongside the fellside and located high enough for peace and quiet from the A591 carving north towards Keswick, the Forest Side is surrounded by woodland and grazing Herdwicks, utterly esconced in nature and Cumbrian charm. This Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel is grand but not overtly so. Bordering the sweeping drive, the grass and plants are not unruly, but neither are they obsessively clipped and trimmed – the overgrown feel a deliberate indicator of the extensive use of nature in Head Chef Kevin Tickle’s cooking.
Unlike any other Michelin-starred hotel, the first thing we see is the mighty kitchen garden and lean-to greenhouse up above and directly ahead of us. This is of course the hotel’s pride and joy and Mr Tickle’s very own raison d’être. Cumbrian born and bred, Kevin Tickle is master forager well-versed in the application of unusual plants and herbs in his cooking – precisely these skills and his attention to detail that awarded the hotel their first Michelin star back in October last year.
On entering the hotel, the style and features are typical of a house built in the Arts & Craft era. Its high ceilings could feel imposing but the modest staircase and cosy ante-rooms are welcoming and comfortable. There’s an overwhelming wholesome feel.
The back-to-nature style of Kevin’s cooking resonates throughout – from the hothouse feel in the bar with its brightly coloured avian wallpaper and electric blue squishy sofas flanked by vivid green house plants to the earthy re-claimed wooden floorboard tables in the restaurant looking out through unencumbered windows upon the lush green gardens and wild fellside beyond.
Seated with pride of place in front of this wonderful view, we’re now eagerly anticipating the L’Al ‘Un lunch menu which is simply printed on recycled card tied together with what is doubtless Herdwick wool twine, thoroughly in keeping of course with the culinary nature trail we’re about to sample.
To begin we’re offered a selection of two amuse-bouches each: prosciutto and egg yolk jam on a sourdough crouton with a zingy flourish of celery cress and butternut squash cracker served with black pudding, damson jam and Tunworth custard. Delicate and punchy these little appetizers have fired our tastebuds.
The official first course is controversial – well at least in my book. Slow-cooked pig’s tail with apple honey is both savoury and sweet at the same time. Served with a side of salty seaweed broth to cut throught the rich and gelatinous flavour of the tail, the dish, although perhaps unpalatable for some (yes it really does look like Babe’s actual tail), is a wonderful mix of strong flavours.
Next up, and again, not for the faint-hearted, an earthy choice of duck hearts served with horseradish, burnt cabbage and pickled green walnuts. Exquistely presented, the robust flavour of the hearts pairs well with the bitter cabbage and sprinkling of cabbage ash.
In stark contrast, we move on to fish; lemon sole served with teeny-tiny Morecambe Bay brown shrimps cooked in brown butter and finished with mace and mussels’ broth. As a lover of everything fishy, this dish is divine. Delicate, creamy flavours complement the oh-so tender lemon sole – delicious!
The final savoury course is beef: shorthorn rib of beef to be exact – beautifully tender and full of flavour. It is served with different textures straight from the forest – Hen of the Woods, an earthy, rich wild mushroom which grows in clusters at the base of trees. Together with crisped cauliflower and apple purée, finished with dittander oil, an edible forest friend of the horseradish family this dish is a classic example of Kevin’s foraged food pairing.
And on to the desserts. Course number five is Apple Buttermilk and Lovage – truly divine. Warm apple cake served with milky butter custard and wait for it… lovage ice-cream with a dehydrated apple crisp to finish on top. Folks, forget your five-a-day salads – all you need is lovage… preferably in the form of ice-cream. As green as the luscious leaves on the hothouse plants in the bar next door, the colour screams vit c in abundance and the taste is refreshingly herby – a perfect palatte cleanser. Together with the peppy sweetness of the crisp apple, this dish is a delight.
We finish on our final dessert; a creamy sheep’s milk mousse served with sweet cicely, a herb which carries a slight celery taste and compliments the honey and decorative sweet meringue tuille.
With six courses finished I feel as if I have just left a veritable roller coaster for the senses. Each dish has been carefully created after obvious extensive culinary experimentation by Kevin Tickle and his team.
If I had to choose, my favourite courses were perhaps the desserts, maybe because for me, the wonderful and surprising tastes of the individual herbs stood out (in particular that lovage ice-cream). I did have to give myself a metaphorical slap in regard to my unease eating Miss Piggy’s appendage in the first course and would beseech those with equal sensibilities to do the same. To fully appreciate this kind of exploratory fine dining one should loosen one’s dietary inhibitions and err, get over yourself. It’s time to let go and indulge in what is an overwhelming sensual taste experience like none other before.
Michelin Stars aside, I do believe that Mr Tickle may just have placed the notion of decadent food pornography on the Cumbrian map… and in sleepy Grasmere of all places. Goodness me, what will the critics say…
Good for: Michelin Star chasers, fine dining fans and seekers of culinary taste sensations.
Not for: Plain, fussy or cheap eaters. Goes without saying this isn’t eating out on a shoestring.
£££££: At £80 a head for a 6 course lunch with £15 supplement for cheese this is not a cheap option but neither is the gainful employment of a Michelin-starred chef together with a team of chefs and three gardeners. Nuff said. This is high-end, fine dining extraordinaire. Other food outlets are of course readily available…
Tips: Savour, enjoy and make sure you fit in enough time for a wander through the grounds and kitchen garden. We met Head Gardener Ollie and his assistant Ali who showed us round and were super friendly and enthusiastic about what they do. Try and meander around pre-meal as this will make you appreciate the foraged herbs even more when you get to sit down.
Forest Side Hotel, Keswick Road, Grasmere, Cumbria, LA22 9RN
T 015394 35250 www.theforestside.com