There are not many things I'd rather do than sit by a hot fire with a cold G&T. The weather outside is filthy and it's a rare night off from domestic duty, so… bring on the Hendrick's. Admittedly, I've had to travel 250 miles for my quiet night by the fire, but it's been worth the trip.
Gilpin Lodge, at the southern end of the Lake District, is a well-established hotel, run by the Cunliffe family for 25 years. I would say, if it were a person, that it's comfortable in its own skin. Yes, new-generation managers Barney and Zoe, son and daughter-in-law Cunliffe, have brought in a few modish extras – such as a hot tub at the edge of the lake, and smoked popcorn as a bar snack – but the overall air is of a contented, conventional club.
There is nothing wrong with that. Hotels and restaurants off the beaten track must give the guest what they want and in comfort. And while I'm sitting by the fire, nursing a drink and reading the menu, all thoughts of the challenging dishes of London's most fashionable new restaurants (ox-cheek doughnuts, bacon panna cotta) slip away.
For here are crab and lobster, venison and Gloucester Old Spot, Lancashire leeks and Goosnargh chicken. A whole charcoal-roasted chicken crown and leg stuffed with truffle and smoked bacon, to be precise. Roast chicken is my desert-island dish. So, although the £58 four-course menu has plenty of tempting classics, it has to be chicken. The long-suffering Mr M concurs, which is lucky, because it would've been embarrassing to order the two-person poultry for one.
The menu helpfully mentions that if you'd prefer a dish cooked more plainly, just to say the word. Come, come; I can't see why the newish young head chef Daniel Grigg would do anything to dumb down a plump bird glossy and juicy from the Big Green Egg charcoal grill (oh, how I wish I had one of these special spendy ovens). Just cleave it in half and bring it to me, man…
Gilpin is one of those hotels where you order your food while nibbling a canapé and wishing you'd won the Lottery so you could roam the country, from one garlanded country-house hotel to another. It means we are led to one of the four little dining-rooms just before the starters come out, rather than having to sit mentally placing the financial circumstances of our fellow diners. Clever, the separate rooms, too. If the hotel's quiet, you wouldn't notice and if you're staying a few nights, you could have a different vista each time.
At our table, the Atlantic spider crab with crushed peas, roasted shell oil and pea mayonnaise, is a thing of beauty, in a glass bowl with a vibrant green crush of pea beneath. A Parmesan disc on top threatens to overwhelm the subtle richness of the crab, but there's skill in the shell oil and the wobbly, scented mayonnaise. Mr M's crisp little salt-cod fritters are greaseless and fluffy, while just-pickled, blushing onion rings and radish are punchy. The accompanying parsley purée got lost along the way.
I'm not a big fan of waiterly flourishes at table – thank the lord that cloche "reveals" seem to have died a death – so the tableside carving of the chicken is not a thrill. My main concern is that I get my fair share. I needn't have worried – and there's triple-cooked chips and creamed spinach that has a good whack of nutmeg on the side. The chicken is succulent and with real flavour (enhanced but not nuked by the bacon and the truffle), crisp skin and gaminess in the legmeat.
I've resisted sommelier Ziggy Grinberg's exhortations to go into and study the wine cellar (OK, I peeked, there are more than 200 bottles – standing upright – begging attention) and had a Sancerre and a Beaujolais from glasses paired with my dishes. Sometimes I don't even want to think about reading a big old wine list.
There's a grandfather clock next to the table (this is old-school styling, all crisp white linen and candles), mercifully not marking the time I've spent eating. I forgo pudding for some excellent British cheeses with treacle bread and quince jelly and go and lie down in a darkened room like a python that's eaten a goat.
The next day I gnaw on a juicy drumstick from my doggy bag on the train home and set up an online National Lottery account. A girl can dream.
Gilpin Lodge country house hotel Crook Road, Windermere, Lake District, tel: 01539 488 818 Lunch and dinner daily. About £115 for two, including drinks
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