Over the fells to foie gras: Eating out

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The Independent Culture
Grasmere, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 9RP. Tel: 05394 35496

Open every day for lunch and dinner, booking essential; set four-course lunch £27.50, set five-course dinner £38. All major credit cards accepted THE LAKE District is not exactly overcrowded with gourmet food outlets; and, of course, it's not every day that you descend from the fells, crampons caked in mud, and find yourself desperate for a confit of duck's leg with squid-ink ravioli and marmalade timbale. But even the fiercest yomper can sometimes tire of chips.

Centrally placed for all the very best mountains - nestling under Rydal Fell and overlooking Grasmere - Michael's Nook is a small, posh, pricey but comfortable hotel and restaurant, offering tasty fancy food and a top-flight wine list. (It's in much the same league as the more famous Sharrow Bay at Ullswater - but open all year, even in darkest winter.)

Michael's Nook is an unfortunate name; even leaving out "nooky" and the moister anatomical area, it suggests that you are going to have to form some embarrassingly unclear relationship with Michael if you are going to stay in his Nook. Happily there is no Michael, he being a humble imaginary shepherd made up by Words-worth, and there is little which is shepherd's hutlike about the elegant Victorian house stuffed with antiques, log fires, squashy sofas and boxes of Black Magic.

The sort of small country house hotel - of which this is one - which has a table and a visitors' book instead of a reception desk, and pretends that you're a guest at a house party, can however, be nerve-racking, with the lines between formality and informality agonisingly blurred. Should you be making friends with the owner and the other guests, biffing them playfully, and bellowing, "Well said, that man!"? Is it OK to help yourself to drinks? What would happen if you ate the whole box of Black Magic? What would happen if you stood on your chair and shouted "BOLLOOOOOCKS!" at the top of your voice? Will everyone be crippled with embarrassment when they have to give you a bill and admit that it wasn't a house party after all?

We were nervously tittery when we came down for dinner (the rooms are very good, luxurious without being hotel chainy) and were ushered into the bar: a cosy room with a log fire and a wide range of chair types. We found ourselves on one of those circularthree-seater sofas where you can only talk to each other by leaning coquettishly back over your shoulder. It seemed quite the wrong thing to talk, anyway, because there was another couple in the room. After a while, though, the couple - he clearly a professional sportsman, big muscles squashed into a suit and tie by the dress code - were led away by a member of staff.

The waitresses wear not uniforms but Jaeger-type dresses as if at a house party where five ladies have turned up in the same frock. We'd been given drinks and weren't sure what we were supposed to do next, but then one of the ladies appeared with a cheery intake of breath and a "Right, here's your canape" - which was a promising tiny mound of warm kedgeree. In a little while she came back and led us through to the dining-room, which was lovely - dark red walls, candlelight, flowers, bare wo o den tableswith beautiful cut glass and over 10 items of cutlery each.

Dinner is five courses, like it or not, which is a lot to get down unless you've been on a very long hike, and frankly the dining-room was not exactly full of hiking types: a party of six Americans, fresh from "Green Eagles near Edinborrow'' who were lo u dly at ease - " I mean, her whole house is hand-carrrved"; four youngish TV types - "Yah. I've seen the rough cut. It's completely, like, over-impressionistic"; and several quieter couples.

The cooking was very good, but slightly hysterical. I started with a salad panache which I thought was just going to be a light lettucey affair. I stuck my fork into the lettuce and found a piece of warm foie gras: a delicious but unnerving surprise, almost as if the next forkful might produce a pair of forceps and an appendix.

My companion had just gone for something, you know, really simple: scallop ravioli in squid ink pasta served on a parsley sauce and garnished with langoustine. "It works very well," he said loftily. "Both interesting and well balanced." Next I had a scrumptious artichoke mousse but was starting to feel as though I'd had two very rich starters - which, come to think of it, I had.

My main course was a fillet of beef of extreme joy on a rich sauce. Surrounding it were blobs of celeriac puree which reminded me of creme chantilly - like serving a lamb chop with dollops of fudge. My friend had guinea fowl marinated with yoghurt and spices which he loved but thought the accompanying spinach and black olive timbale too much He, bizarrely, doesn't like desserts, but I really do and was in a huff with my spiced savarin with ginger ice-cream. Call me a bigot but I don't hold with sugar cages: wasting cooks' time and making the diner feel pointlessly destructive. And the cold sponge of the savarin wasn't right with ice-cream. Oh, I know people will say "Arctic roll", but I would come straight back with "baked Alaska", adding that any sponge over half an inch thick accompanied by ice-cream should be hot. I could have had something delicious and chocolatey instead. Anyway, I don't want to talk about it anymore.

After the cheese course, which was excellent with delicious home-made oatcakes (all the baking was exceptional), coffee was taken in the drawing-room, where we found an enormous Christmas tree decorated with dog-show rosettes and, above the fireplace, a Crinkley Bottomesque painting of the owner, Reg Gifford, and his wife as Lord and Lady of the Manor. You might snort but this sort of idiotic personal touch, combined with friendliness, saves the place from mutual staff/guest fear. By the m o rning we were settled in and rather fancying getting paintings of ourselves as Lord and Lady of the Manor. Of course, there will be those moments when you look out over the fells and wish you were staying in a pub where you could put your boots over ever ything - but then you wouldn't get foie gras in your lettuce, would you?

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