HomeLifestyleFood & RecipesForest Side, review: Cumbrian produce elevated to Michelin-starred proportions

Forest Side, review: Cumbrian produce elevated to Michelin-starred proportions

When is a Waldorf salad not a Waldorf salad? When it’s almost a pudding – and there’s not a lettuce leaf in sight.

This simple side salad of celery, walnuts and apples was invented in 1893 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. While it’s been subject to many reinterpretations over the years, the Forest Side’s head chef Paul Leonard garnered a Michelin star for his take on this classic dish.

Arriving in a delicate and crisp stewed-apple tart case that takes no less than 72 hours to create, it’s filled with a creme fraiche cake, walnut brittle, dehydrated grapes and confit celery. Walnut, celery and apple gels are also added, along with a Granny Smith apple skin sorbet, all topped with a walnut tuile. The different flavours and texture compliment each other perfectly, creating an unforgettable sweet and sour flavour bomb that continues to linger long in the memory.

This petite morsel of food forms part of Leonard’s eight-course Michelin-starred menu at the Cumbrian hotel and restaurant, which was named the Best Country House Hotel of the Year in the 2023 Good Hotel Awards. In addition to the star, it’s also been awarded four rosettes, ranked number nine on Square Meal’s annual list of the UK’s 100 best restaurants and reached the top 30 of Harden’s Top 100 of the Best UK Restaurants. Which is a long way of saying that there’s plenty of justifiable interest in this superb family-run operation and that it’s been a good 2023 for the team.

And it’s far from Leonard’s first culinary rodeo. Having cooked under Marcus Wareing and Andrew Fairlie, the Hull-native retained a Michelin star at The Isle of Eriska on the west coast of Scotland, before heading up the luxury Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, where he won four rosettes for his cookery. In 2019, he joined the team at the Forest Side.

Here, the emphasis is very much on making the most of this sensational landscape, in both aesthetics and taste, with Leonard aiming to source 90 per cent of produce from within a 10-mile radius of the establishment. Handily, an extensive and original red brick Victorian walled garden is home to many of the ingredients rustled up by the team, including saffron, courgettes, tomatoes and an “unofficial” apple orchard that boasts 300 different types of apple.

And what a successful collaboration it is. Guests arrive in the light and airy dining room, which looks out to the red-squirrel-occupied garden and dramatic fells. Reclaimed timber and steel tables sit aside a central sommelier’s table crafted from a windblown tree in the grounds. But instead of the buttoned-up atmosphere that often permeates restaurants of this calibre, the familiar sound of classic anthems – think Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks and Pulp – floods through the space, extinguishing any sense of forced propriety. It’s an intentional move initiated by Leonard and a welcome one more restaurants could learn from: a relaxed room of toe-tapping patrons is significantly happier than one with a reverential silence.

Paul Leonard’s Michelin-starred take on a ‘Waldorf salad’

(Joanna Whitehead)

Snippy waiters with clipped accents have no place here. At the Forest Side, staff seem genuinely delighted to be there, arriving with smiles and warm inflections. Under Leonard’s leadership, junior chefs present each course and it’s a genuine pleasure to see their passion for and pride in the food they’ve created.

Proceedings kick off with a trio of “snacks”: a rhubarb and whipped chicken liver tart, a Hafod cheddar gougère, and a croustade of brown buttered shrimp. The gougère is scrumptious – buttery and nutty and blanketed with a slice of bresaola – while the whipped chicken liver is smooth and rich.

Kohlrabi with cured and lightly smoked trout is served with a salsa verde made from garden herbs and cured trout roe, while a unctuous broth is made from pork fat, seaweed and mushrooms. “Beetroots cooked in their own juice all day” might not seem like the kind of dish to set hearts aflutter, but this isn’t any old root veg. The humble vegetable is cooked all day in its own juice before being dehydrated to create a fudgy texture, and served with a chamomile-infused yoghurt. It’s delicious.

We gobble down a supple scallop, followed shortly by the most tender and rich hogget, splashed with a sauce made from confit lamb tongue, pickled mustard seeds and wild garlic buds.

Glazed in Marmite, the milk loaves are baked before each service

(Joanna Whitehead)

And the bread! Baked before each service, this milk loaf is glazed in Marmite and simply served with a butter made at the nearby Winter Tarn Dairy. This early course is luxury comfort food at its best and we’re forced to restrain ourselves for fear of spoiling our appetite.

We finish off with “first rhubarb of the year”, ginger and custard, which is as delicious as it sounds: a perfect balance of sweet vanilla, sorbet and herbs.

Satiated, we make the easy trip upstairs to our room, one of 20 at the hotel, all of which have garden views and make the perfect end to our decadent dining experience.

Is there still a place for fine dining restaurants during a cost-of-living crisis? As employers and buyers, producers and supporters of local food, they’re invaluable to the economy, while for gastronomes who wish to splash some cash treating themselves or someone else, they’re a luxury much like a pair of tickets to see Beyoncé or a championship football match. Overheard snippets of conversation among fellow guests reveal birthday treats or anniversaries, of a weekend away from the grind to relax in this glorious gothic mansion house amidst the fells. Whatever the reason, a trip to the Forest Side is quite simply sublime.

A four-course dinner menu costs £85pp, while an eight-course dinner menu costs £130pp. A four-course lunch menu costs £55pp, while an eight-course lunch menu costs £85. Wine pairings come in flights of four, six or eight and start from £75 per person.

B&B and dining packages are also available – visit theforestside.com for more information.

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