The unexpected arrival of Ben Wilkinson at the Cottage in the Wood has resulted in a permanent position and a Michelin star. Janie Manzoori-Stamford pays a visit
Ben Wilkinson was only meant to be at the Cottage in the Wood for a couple of weeks. With a CV that includes Galvin at Windows in the London Hilton Park Lane, Midsummer House in Cambridge and the Rampsbeck hotel in Ullswater, he was between roles and there to help a friend.
But Wilkinson ended up staying on at the 30-cover Lake District property, which was bought by owners Liam and Kath Berney in 2002 and features nine luxury bedrooms. He went on to assume the reins of the kitchen, become a director of the business alongside his partner and restaurant director Monika Zurawska, and win a Michelin star – all in just 18 months.
"It was pretty weird. I don't think anyone had ever heard of us," he says. "We didn't set out to get a Michelin star. We were saying, ‘let's just buy really nice produce and cook it nicely'."
And that's exactly what Wilkinson and his team of three do. They use the highest-quality produce the business can afford – "there's no point wanting the best if you're going to go bust serving it" – to deliver well-executed, classic flavour combinations that celebrate the restaurant's location.
Menus include a three- or five-course lunch (£35/£55) and a three-course dinner priced at £50 per head. The seven-course Taste Cumbria menu at lunch and dinner costs £70 with a £45 wine flight and a cheese course for a supplementary £10. A vegetarian Taste Cumbria menu is also available, and hot drinks and petits fours can be added to any menu for £4.95.
Wilkinson's ethos is epitomised by his venison dish, which features on the tasting menu. The venison, sourced from local supplier Cartmel Valley Game, is seared and served with sour cabbage and pickled fennel that acts as a coleslaw, and a smoked oil emulsion. To top it off, Wilkinson adds dried cep powder made from the wild mushrooms that grow just outside the restaurant.
"When you eat the whole dish it's really comforting, familiar flavours, because it tastes like a great burger. The rare meat, the smoky flavour, the crunch from the lettucey, cabbagey slaw," he explains. "But it's done in an interesting way. It looks great on the plate and we finish it with some elements that tie it into where we are."
Texture plays a big part in Wilkinson's cooking, from the hazelnuts that feature alongside a hand-dived scallop served with Jerusalem artichoke purée to the pine nuts on a starter of salt-baked and pickled beetroot, sheep's curd, horseradish and nasturtium. The reason is so that there is "something going on" in each mouthful because "you don't want to feel like you're eating a big bowl of blancmange".
From the dinner menu, a dish of white crab, savoury brown crab royale, chilled peppery watercress and garden herbs is served with a crisp rye cracker that serves to add crunch and also complement the inherent nuttiness of the shellfish.
"The flavours work well together. In essence it's a crab salad with the royale bringing a richness that binds it together and the freshness from the watercress salad. But everything is in a really refined state," he adds. "It's not overworked. It doesn't look like a thousand fingers have touched it."
Another dish that exemplifies Wilkinson's ability to marry textures and flavours is a pear dessert, also from the dinner menu. An unctuous rice pudding is cooked so that the rice is almost to the point of collapse and served with gently poached pear that has taken on the flavours of the poaching liquor but still has some bite. There is sweet, soft fudge, crunchy honeycomb, candied orange zest and fresh mint, as well as a cool pear sorbet that provides a delightful contrast to the warm pudding.
This is a menu that is both deeply connected to the local landscape and the chef's training. It takes the diner on a journey through the fells, the woodland and the shore using classic flavour combinations that aim to be familiar and fantastic.
"We do dishes that people recognise. They're comfortable and willing to order it. Then they eat it and realise it's a really good one," says Wilkinson. "I want people to say the best one of that dish that they ever had was at the Cottage in the Wood."
The Cottage in the Wood, Magic Hill, Whinlatter Forest, Braithwaite Near Keswick, Cumbria CA12 5TW01768 778409www.thecottageinthewood.co.uk
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