Sharing dishes following the spice trail from India to Japan…
The upmarket casual dining restaurant opened in the autumn 2016. It completes the offering from the luxurious five-star Gilpin Hotel and Lake House in Windermere, Lake District, and was rewarded with 2 AA Rosettes earlier this year.
Therefore it was a must try for my colleague, Bettina Fischer and I. We had high expectations of the food offering but were equally blown away by the décor, the work of Lake District interior designer Sarah Jane Nielsen, and overseen by co-owner Zoe Cunliffe. It was simply beautiful and captured the Cumbrian rich heritage that has long included the trading of exotic spices.
Nielsen has succeeded in creating a virtual journey following the old silk road from the Lakes through to the Far East and the final result is a feast for the eyes.
Diners can choose to indulge in themed zones: For a private party, take the road to India and hire the intimate private area, which comes complete with its own large cinema screen and a long table for exclusive dining or business meeting; Or perhaps take a trip to Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam to soak up the action in the main hub. This is the place to be entertained with its open-kitchen design.
We chose to dine in the intimate traditional Chinese area with a colour palette of rich deep reds oozing glamour and opulence, combined with modern furnishings and dressings.
The menu, inspired by the spice trail with a Desai twist, is vast. You can play it safe and order a three-course set menu for two to share (delights such as Herdwick lamb shank or salt baked root vegetables are featured). Or go free for all, which is what we did. We were like kids in a sweetshop with eyes bigger than our bellies. If you follow our lead, be warned, the richness and sheer variety of the dishes means your taste buds will hold you to ransom as to what you choose to indulge in first.
We went for a little love bombing starting with Pani Puri – golf ball size puff balls, crushed and filled with chickpea curry, tamarind and mint chutney, savoury noodles, chopped onions and chaat masala (£6).
Now this is something I have indulged in from street markets in India – right through to the home-cooked version made by my Auntiji. Normally, this Indian equivalent to an amuse bouche, creates a one off explosion of flavour in the mouth but, wow, this was different. Desai had his signature all over this. How did he create this bomb of goodness, allowing my taste buds to savour every ingredient in its individual layers? Very clever.
We moved on to the Study of Satay skewers (£5 each or £12 for all 3). We were beautifully presented with Satay Ayam (chicken satay), Satay Daging (Malay beef satay) and Satay Udang (prawn satay), served with home-made peanut sauce, sweet and sour cucumber and chilli salad. The flavours were subtle and not overpowering and the peanut sauce so fresh. This dish counterbalanced the Pani Puri. So far…so good…
Next, Bettina chose the Soup Taster Trio (£9) and I chose a full bowl of the DTom Yum soup. Bettina’s mini taster pots included Tomato Che Saar (wood roast tomatoes tempered with cumin, ginger, lemongrass and onion). This is a lovely comforting soup with rich sweet and sour depth of flavour with a velvety texture created by the coconut milk and served with croutons, fried onions and coriander leaves.
The DTom Yum soup is a medicinal tonic of Thai tiger prawn hot and sour soup, with a real depth of flavour from the prawn stock, prawns, fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, floral galangal, some serious heat from the fresh bird’s eye chilli, and fresh lime juice added at the very last minute.
For me, The DTom took me back to my days travelling around Asia, and in particular, Thailand, where I practically craved and lived off this soup. It did not disappoint and was incredibly fresh, showing the quality of the ingredients.
The final taster pot was the Chinese Sweetcorn soup, the menu states that the trick is in the potent stock that is full of aromatic vegetables. We were savouring every mouthful.
Next the Shammi Kebab (£6), a crispy lamb cake flavoured with cinnamon, garam masala and coriander. This dish was originally created for the toothless Nawab of Lucknow in India, and this version had a Desai twist. The kebab coated with lovely potato crispiness melted in the mouth. This dish was served with fresh carrot and beetroot and the chutney? Well, I was transported back to my Punjabi roots. This was no mainstream mint chutney you find in Indian restaurants. The combination of mint, lemon, garlic and ginger was home-from-home.
Then came the Singaporean Style Fried Paneer (£8), crispy Indian cottage cheese chunks rolled in a sweet sour tomato based sauce and assorted bell pepper chunks.
Oh! This was a disappointment. The chunks too big and the sweet and sour, although coating the outside of the paneer, the flavours did not penetrate past the first bite. When you know a Michelin star chef is behind these dishes, expectation is high. We felt this dish was to obviously sweet and sour, similar to what we have tasted in many a places and the pepper a little too crunchy. No Desai twist to this one.
Our choices of dishes were so vastly different that we now had bits of random sauces and flavour remnants on the plate. We wanted a plate change and had to ask meekly for this to happen…just a small gripe.
Now, with clean plates, we went for a palate cleanser. The Yam Ma Muang (£6), a Thai green pawpaw, cucumber, pomegranate, mixed bell peppers and toasted peanut salad seasoned with lime, palm sugar, mild red chilli and fish sauce dressing.
This dish was okay. We found the pawpaw a little too thick and would have liked more dressing. Maybe, by this time, our greed had caught up with us and a smaller plate or simply using this as a palate cleanser would have sufficed.
But we soldiered on. We were in the Lake District after all and enjoying whiling away the afternoon in the glorious sunshine. So we ordered the Morecambe Seafood (£16). This Thai green curry was enhanced with fresh and perfectly cooked calamari, tiger prawns, mussels, green chilli, coconut and lime sauce, and served with cumin in the rice.
This dish was simply yummy. The sauce was spicy and you could really taste the coconut and lime but without it being too creamy, sweet or sour. The rice reminded me of the basis of a Biriyani. It was cooked in a wok but could easily have been mistaken for being oven baked.
We finished the meal with the Black peppercorn and Yoghurt Sorbet (£6) and Crume Brulue (Crème Brulee) with Coconut Sorbet (£8).
Watching someone blow torching Crème Brulee on a trip to France was what inspired Desai to pursue a career as a chef rather than front-of-house. Therefore, no trip to one of his restaurants would have been complete without a taste of his take on this dessert. The organic Malay clove was sourced by Desai and co-owner Barnaby Cunliffe – from Eric’s farm in Malaysia and it did not disappoint. It was so fresh and flavoursome and gave me a different perspective as to how this clove can make or break a dish. The coconut sorbet was a lovely compliment.
Bettina found the black peppercorn sorbet lovely and unusual with a lovely texture from the yoghurt. However, she found the peppery spice a little too much after a few spoonfuls’. Small is beautiful when it came to this wonderful dessert.
Our verdict? This was a fantastic journey on the Asian spice trail and we personally would return again to savour the other delights on the menu.
Thankfully Bettina was driving, allowing me to indulge in the Champagne Verve Doussot Noe les Mallets Avbe Champagne but the attentive and very knowledgeable staff took it upon themselves to create a mocktail of ginger ale and lime juice for Bettina to indulge in.
It’s a beautiful place, relaxing with reasonable prices and way too easy to get carried away. Thumbs up from the team at Eatnorth!
Check out Hrishikesh Desai’s recipe here.