Built as a rich man's folly – it was the Earl of Lonsdale's hunting lodge in the 1880s – Holbeck Ghyll is a gorgeous country house hotel with a stupendous view over Lake Windermere. Across the glassily calm lake stand the Langdales Pikes and, beyond them, the snow-capped peaks of the Cumbrian mountains to the north-west. Inside, it's like a dream of posh, Country Living-mag rusticity, from the blazing log fire and the Parker Knoll chairs in the lobby to the woven Bergerac furniture and the biographies of Tory politicians in the sitting-room. They bring you a dry martini and a leather-clad menu as you sit in the window seat thinking a) this is ridiculously old-fashioned, and b) this is sooooo blissful.
There's a gentleman's club feel to the dining-room, with its polished oak panelling (the whole hotel is a tribute to the late Victorian arts-and-crafts movement), its sconce lamps and disdain for tablecloths. The curtains are drawn across the bow window where the management obligingly set up a lunch table for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon when they were filming BBC2's The Trip, Michael Winterbottom's quirky record of their two-man gastro-tour of Cumbria.
The one and only bum note is the laughable coal-effect electric fire in the grate, a throwback to the stylish days of 1965. You wonder if the cooking will have changed since those days – and are not wholly reassured by the tray of amuse-bouches. Here was rillettes of chicken liver, a mushroom crostini, a duck boudin with plum jam and a cream-cheese-'n'-garlic something-or-other in a sharp pastry crown. They tasted OK, but lacked excitement, as if they were the last canapés on the tray at a lunchtime reception, cunningly recycled at dinner. A secondary amuse, of pumpkin and gruyère soup, was creamy, frothy and densely textured, the cheese giving the boring pumpkin a welcome kick.
Angie's langoustine salad with celeriac and lobster remoulade offered a near-perfect crayfish, beautifully cooked, fresh, moist and juicy, but eccentrically served on tepid roundels of boiled potato. She looked for traces of lobster (which of course would go with langoustine like a horse and carriage through the taste buds) but found it had been wholly subsumed in the tender ropes of celeriac. It seemed a shame.
My scallops, roasted rather than pan-fried, seemed to possess a yummily grown-up quality, some way removed from the seared-baby's-bottom scallop texture with which we are over-familiar. They came with a spiced cauliflower, apple and raisin purée, which seems to be one of the head chef David McLaughlin's signature dishes, and very fine it was. If you'd told me before dinner that scallops and apple were being yoked together in the same dish, I would have snorted with disapproval. But some citric alchemy was at work here, and I loved the combination.
From a long and thoughtfully selected wine list, I chose a 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape and tasted it. It seemed, at first sip, a little thin and begrudging. "Don't worry," said our charming wine waiter, Stephan, "This one'll whack you across the face a bit later on." He was dead right too. I like a bit of aggression in my Rhône wines.
The Ghyll (how one keeps re-inventing it on one's lips as "Holbeck Grill") is a bit of a shrine to hefty cuts of meat and equally hefty French reductions, offset by teensy-tiny, dolls'-house vegetables. My best end of lamb was perfectly cooked, pink but firm and tasty, served on a purée of shallots and surrounded by tiny mushrooms and even tinier carrots in a rosemary jus. It was a lovely re-thinking of the Sunday-lunchtime classic and worked marvellously.
Angie's daube of beef with pomme purée, root vegetables and girolles, though not an enormous plateful, was butched up with a dense wine jus that lined one's oesophagus and stomach walls like anaglypta wallpaper. The puréed potato concealed unannounced truffles. The girolles were dark, dense and threatening little French muggers. This was a stonking dish, drenched in flavours, that would have defeated a Hawkshead trencherman, let alone a slender blonde from London. It was wonderful, but it was just too much.
We had no room for pudding, but I couldn't resist the crème brûlée with apple sorbet. Its blow-torched roof was as thin and light as a wisp, the cream itself divinely supple – and the final grace-note was a trio of cooked apple slices, as frangible as potato crisps. The chef had marinaded the slices in lemon, sugar and water before cooking them in a low oven for an hour. That's the attention to detail that won Mr McLaughlin a Michelin star. And if he is slightly too keen on purées-with-everything for my liking, he's a real find. So is pretty well everything about this beguiling hotel. That Earl of Lonsdale must have known he was on to something when he bought it 130 years ago.
Holbeck Ghyll Hotel, Holbeck Lane, Windermere, Cumbria (015394 32375)
About £120 for two, with wine. Tipping policy: "No service charge. All tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Choice of Cumbria
This gorgeous hotel has a fabulous restaurant – the Goosnargh duck and the Hawkshead venison are deservedly popular.
Ambleside Road, Windermere (01539 431 922)
The Punch Bowl Inn
The glazed Lancashire cheese soufflé (£6.50) and sirloin steak (£18.95) are typical of the hearty food at this impressive inn.
Crosthwaite, Lyth Valley (015395 68237)
Chef-patron Simon Rogan grows his ingredients on his nearby farm. The 12-course dinner for two(£160) is legendary.
Cavendish Street, Cartmel (015395 36362)Reuse content