Ambleside

Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside

We start dinner as we usually do; me knocking back a negroni like I’ve never seen one before, my more delicate other half nursing the most expensive cocktail on the list, this time a £19 mixture of champagne, aquavit, and bitters. From our centrally positioned table we can hear Chef Patron, James Cross, speak to the table next to the pass. “Any chef who tells you he has invented something is a liar. We are all borrowing from something. Most of my techniques are 700 years old”. I like the man already.

Four hours later we leave, stumbling back to the hotel discussing one of the best meals we’ve eaten in recent years. Lake Road Kitchen might look unassuming from the outside, but this is one of the best in the UK. The techniques of pickling and fermentation and cooking over flames may well be as old as time, but here they have taken them and stamped their identity on them to produce dish after dish of winners, each bringing a distinct narrative to the central story. The thin sheets of ham with gossamer ribbons of fat have little to do with the course of barbecue quail tacos other than they are both delicious. I could eat a hundred of those tacos. In between these comes possibly the UK’s best bread with an almost cheese-like butter. Again, another hundred portions, please.

Then prawn toast happens. Or prawn Kiev, whichever way you want to view the starting point of the dish. Should we make it to the end of 2020 – which is doubtful at present – I’ll look back and see this as possibly the year’s best plate of food: plump prawns bound in a mousseline of the same shellfish, itself set within a casing and a pocket of garlic butter. Pick up slice, dunk into tomato ketchup. Regret nothing.

The langoustine in a light tomato broth which follows lacks the same punch and is more a study of floral notes and gentle spice, before a beef and onion broth that works as a bread-less French Onion soup with the gratings of Beaufort that mingle and add much needed layers of fattiness. A risotto of pine nuts rich in saffron – and slightly too high in salt – is funky, umami driven, with raw slices of button mushroom and slithers of 7yr old parmesan. We tilt the bowl to get the last out of it.

Gigha Halibut cooked to a gelatinous texture somehow, served with a beurre blanc sauce that pops with trout roe salinity, is the only time the food doesn’t feel original. I’ve had similar dishes at several restaurants in the last twelve months. Then pig, specifically an entire chop of Saddleback for two. First as a singular slice of glistening meat and fat, with carrots both puréed and pickled, pickled onions, and a sauce studded with pickled ransom capers. Then a second plate this bearing the rest of the chop, complete with bone. Some of the best pork I can remember eating; the meat glaze on the outside almost sweet, bathed in bright acidity throughout. Pretty much perfect work.

We finish on three dishes which take us seamlessly from savoury to sweet. Herbaceous, almost hay-like, woodruff ice cream is followed by a blackberry marshmallow ice cream and cassis with the most incredible viscosity that will live long in the memory. Final course is baked cheesecake reminiscent of La Vina, light and creamy in texture, with apricot compote and ice cream. It’s fun and original, a rarity in fine dining.

Service is great and the wine pairings – almost all leaning towards the acidity of alpine regions – is excellent value at £70. It’s a meal that stands out for it’s singular vision; James Cross’s CV starts at Simpson’s, before moving on to a 3* in Rome and a lengthy period at Noma, yet none of these appear on the dishes in an obvious form. Lake Road utilises the best of its Lake District larder and turns it into something unique which has it’s own identity. It’s without question one of the best restaurants in the land.