"Humph," said my mother. The problem with restaurants in this lovely, remote part of England is that the valleys are dotted with pubs so inviting - with their flagstone floors, roaring fires and delicious fish and chips - that it always seems absurd to eat anywhere with waitresses and vegetable sculptures. Our meal at Amerdale House, however, convinced even Mum that the word "consummate", though rude-sounding, was not inappropriate. It was a meal to rival the poshest restaurants in the land; a meal to banish the word "chip" from the mind for hours at a stretch.
Arncliffe is in Littondale, one of the most tranquil of the Dales. It is a huddle of grey stone houses and a pub, surrounded by steep fells, criss-crossed by dry stone walls. We arrived on a beautiful clear evening, with mist beginning to hang on the hills' edges, and deep silence broken only by sheep and curlews.
Amerdale House is the former manor house of the village, square and rather grown-up looking. We were a little flummoxed by the smell of new carpets on arrival but within seconds were warming to the taste experience ahead as we were welcomed and ushered upstairs past the kitchen, spotless, full of stainless steel and shamelessly open to the hallway. "It's not often you get to see into a kitchen like that in a hotel," hissed Mum approvingly.
Dinner, bed and breakfast is pounds 59; about the same as just dinner in a smart London restaurant. If the place were trimmed out with Colefax and Fowler wallpaper, gilt light switches, giant oils of the Duke of Devonshire, and curtains ruched to look like babies' pants it could have been pounds 300 a night and not nearly so nice. One of the sitting rooms has been done out in up-to-the-minute country house style, but the other public rooms have more of a Yorkshire front-roomish feel - Dralon sofas, carpets with repeat square patterns - and the bedrooms were pretty and simple rather than grand. But once installed in ours, which overlooked the herb garden and raspberry canes, we were instantly brought a pot of fresh tea and home-made biscuits - none of your UHT sachets and packeted bourbons here. The main drawing room, huge and stunningly proportioned, was dominated by spectacular views through large windows.
We were ushered into the drawing room to peruse the menu over pistachios and very good olives. The hotel is blessed with the original vaulted wine cellars; the wine list is sensibly sized and ungreedily priced, with all but a handful of the well-chosen wines well under pounds 20, and a tempting selection of half bottles.
Our choices made, we were taken through to the elegant dining room, where half a dozen nicely dressed couples were tucking in at polished wood tables, resplendent with candles, flowers, silver cutlery and dainty glassware. The butter was sculpted into the shape of a rose, the bread was all home- made. My marinated herrings and anchovy starter sat on an array of interesting leaves, lightly dressed, scattered with pine kernels. Mum started with orange terrine in a Campari and orange jelly. "Ooh, it's beautiful, really juicy and fresh."
The fish course was a plate of extremely good smoked salmon, served with creme fraiche, chopped herbs from the garden, and lemon. We were beginning to sense we were in the hands of someone who really understands good food. The meal was exactly suited to its level of cooking, not at all showy- offy, beautifully judged. As chef Nigel Crapper, who owns and runs the hotel with his wife Paula, later explained, "if you've got good ingredients you don't need to muck around with them." Monkfish medallions and scallops pan-fried with bacon, simply served in their own juices, were absolutely exquisite. Mum's chicken with oyster mushrooms was "a beautifully cooked piece of chicken in a creamy sauce with just a hint of a tint of curry. It's just fantastic."
After three courses, we found to our amazement that we not only wanted dessert, but cheese as well, which was generously offered at no extra cost. "The temptation of a sweet menu should always be such that you feel you have to hold back," declared Mum, "but there's no need to do that here. The size of his portions is just perfect."
Chocolate tart was a thin, dainty triangle of perfection: crisp on top, rich and creamy underneath, with melting pastry and a garnish of fresh raspberries. The strawberry sorbet made us remember the first proper strawberry ice-cream we ever ate in Italy, in the days when we'd only ever tasted Walls or Lyons Maid: an absolute taste sensation.
Coffee, chocolates and cheeses were taken in the bar, with a window unusually placed above the fire with a stunning view of the fells. Local cheeses, Swaledale, Coverdale and Blue Wensleydale, were served with home-made oatcakes, and the chocolates - confited orange and lemon peel in cocoa, truffles coated in white chocolate - were home-made too.
As we lay in our room with the fresh, cool air and the sound of a single cuckoo drifting in through the open window, Mum (who has been known to take one mouthful of a main course in a high-class restaurant and declare, "Well, it looks very nice, but it tastes like something that's come out of the sink") was in raptures. "If you find yourself eating a fancy meal and think half-way through 'I really wish I was having sausage and chips' it hasn't succeeded, has it? But this - well, you just wanted to stay for a week." !