For Cumbrian chef Darren Comish, this country house hotel on Lake Windermere is the perfect venue for a menu devoted to local produce. Neil Gerrard reports
Back in 2013, when chef Darren Comish was still working at the Oak Bank in Grasmere, restaurant critic Jay Rayner described his "brilliant cooking" as the "remarkable secret" of the hotel.
Fast forward a couple of years and it is perhaps less of a secret than it once was. For one thing, Comish brought his talent to wider attention by making the finals of BBC TV show MasterChef: The Professionals last year, and earlier this summer he was installed as the new head chef of Holbeck Ghyll, overlooking Windermere in the Lake District.
Holbeck Ghyll's restaurant is, of course, something of an institution in the area, having long held a Michelin star and three AA rosettes under former head chef David McLaughlin. It lost the star in 2014, after 14 years, and was downgraded to two AA rosettes earlier this year.
"It has a massive reputation and it was a bit nerve-racking when I first took over," admits Comish. "But I have settled in now. "
The local lad, who is originally from Barrow, has set his sights on keeping the restaurant thriving first.
"The main points are that we want to be busy and for the customers to be happy, and then from a personal perspective I want the three rosettes back," he says.
He has already stamped his identity on the menu, sweeping away the classical French dishes that characterised McLaughlin's style and replacing them with what Comish describes as "modern British" food with plenty of international references.
He has also shaken up the approach to both suppliers and seasonality. The menu will change seasonally, and whereas previously the restaurant would have used ingredients like Scottish lamb or beef, Comish is keen to tap into local produce wherever possible. "I think we have got some of the best lamb and beef in the world right outside," he says. "Why not use that? I am a Cumbrian lad, so I will use Cumbrian as much as I can."
The international touches come in creations like the starter of teriyaki mackerel, sesame, satay, avocado relish and cashew nut crumble, which is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. "The mackerel is a play on Asian flavours," Comish says. "We marinate the mackerel in a teriyaki marinade and then we use a sesame marshmallow to give it a slight modern twist." In addition to the marriage of flavours in the dish, Comish has created a range of textures, from the satay purée and avocado relish, flavoured with a little chilli and coriander, through to the crisp mackerel skin and the crunchy cashew nut crumble.
If the restaurant has seen a fair bit of change since Comish arrived in July, then there is plenty more on the way. Under millionaire owner Stephen Leahy, the founder of engineering firm Select Group, who bought the hotel from Patricia Nicholson and the late David Nicholson in 2010, and business manager Joseph Nichols, there are plans to completely renovate and extend the kitchens in January 2016. If it all goes according to plan, there will be a large window so that diners will be able to see the chefs at work. The number of covers in the restaurant should also rise slightly, from around 70 to 80 or so.
"It's an exciting project," says Comish. "The owner has really ambitious plans, but he is very down-to-earth and honest. So it will all happen - it's just a question of when."
All of that, combined with the excellent standard of Comish and his team's cooking, should ensure that he won't remain a secret for very much longer.
From the menu
Confit duck leg terrine with red wine figs, shimeji, pickled beetroot and beetroot sorbet
Mozzarella, red pepper gazpacho, confit cherry tomato, Thai basil, basil oil and tomato jelly
Sea bass with artichoke, roast cauliflower, hazelnut granola and hazelnut emulsion
Banoffee cheesecake, passion fruit and yogurt sorbet, passion fruit curd
Chocolate and orange dome, orange gel, orange sorbet
Dinner menu, £68; gourmet menu, £88
Holbeck Lane, Windermere, Cumbria LA23 1LU