Paul Leonard's longed-for move to the Lake District has heralded a celebration of the kitchen garden, resulting in a refined expression of local flavours.
When Hull-born Paul Leonard was appointed head chef of the Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey three years ago, he thought he had "come home" to Yorkshire to put down his roots. He took the four-red-AA-star property's Burlington restaurant from three to four AA rosettes, and no doubt had dreams of winning many more accolades.
But when his friend Kevin Tickle announced he was leaving the Michelin-starred Forest Side, the restaurant with 20 bedrooms nestled in the heart of the Lake District, Leonard and his wife Robyn felt it was an opportunity they couldn't miss.
"I can honestly say we visited the Forest Side six or seven times from its opening in 2016 to us both joining the team," explains Leonard, describing the occasions he and Robyn, who now works as part of the hotel's front of house team, dined at the boutique, Andrew Wildsmith-owned property. "We loved Kev's food and we loved the place, so for us it was a great decision to come here."
The Forest Side is Leonard's third head chef position, having spent his formative years training at Marcus in Belgravia, and what he describes as his finishing school, working for the late Andrew Fairlie at his two-Michelin-starred, eponymous restaurant at Gleneagles in Auchterarder, Perthshire.
It was while working at Andrew Fairlie that Leonard was presented with his first head chef position at the Isle of Eriska in Oban, Argyll, where he was awarded a Michelin star. "I look at my time with Marcus and Andrew and feel that those two chefs pretty much sum up where I'm at," he says. "I like lightness of touch and I like food to be quite elegant, and hopefully that comes across in my menus."
I like lightness of touch and I like food to be quite elegant
Being with Fairlie taught Leonard much more than just cooking, however. "He taught me how to act as a chef and how to act as a person. I've not been in many kitchens as amazing as that and I loved it to bits."
Because of Covid-19, of course, Leonard has had quite a disrupted first nine months at the Forest Side. He joined the 19th-century ‘gentleman's residence' last November, shortly before the property was forced to close in March. However, having recently reopened with all the critical protocols in place, Leonard and his brigade are delighted to be back behind the stove.
The Forest Side operates separate lunch and dinner tasting menus (four courses at lunch, presently £35 and only available on Fridays and Saturdays); and four or eight courses at dinner, including a selection of "snacks", in addition to vegetarian menus, served in the hotel's 30-cover restaurant. Dinner is only available as part of the dinner, bed and breakfast package from £299 per room.
A kitchen garden made up of about 150 raised beds and two polytunnels supplies the nine-strong brigade with more than 100 varieties of vegetable and 25 types of herb, including sweet cicely and sorrel, which features in a dessert of poached peach, goats' milk bavarois, sorrel and oat crumble.
All dishes showcase the kitchen garden in some form, such as barbecue native lobster, served with kohlrabi and spruce from the garden and the neighbouring forest. The lobster claws are cooked in a court bouillon, the meat removed and portioned ready for service, when it is gently warmed in lobster oil. The tail is frozen and then defrosted in a 10% salt brine flavoured with spruce, tenderising and seasoning the meat (a technique learned from Luke French of Jöro in Sheffield). It is then skewered and cooked over charcoal while being brushed with fermented honey infused with spruce pollen. The dish is served with smoked kohlrabi purée (the vegetable is blackened and cooked overnight on the barbecue, flesh scooped out and blitzed with stock, cream and butter), spruce oil (spruce tips blitzed with sunflower oil), and finely sliced kohlrabi discs compressed in the Forest Side's house pickling liquor just before service. Freshly diced Granny Smith adds a touch of acidity, while forced sea kale and pigeon kale further sweeten the dish.
It's a dish that typifies Leonard's cooking – strikingly simple on the surface, but layered with taste, texture and masterful technique underneath.
From the menu
- Cured mackerel tart, gooseberries, elderflower
- ‘The egg' – caramelised whey custard, roasted celeriac, forest mushrooms on toast
- Raw venison from Cartmel Valley, caviar, house Marmite
- Summer tomatoes, cockles, clams, smoked bacon broth
- Barbecue native lobster, kohlrabi, spruce
- Veal sweetbread tortellini, summer truffle, beef broth, salsify
- ‘Salad' – duck ham, yolk, green herb dressing
- North Atlantic cod, nasturtium, mussels, turnip
- Herdwick hogget, peas, beans, faggot
- Peach, goats' milk, sorrel
- Strawberries and meadowsweet
Dinner, bed and breakfast, from £299 per room
The Forest Side, Keswick Road, Grasmere, Cumbria LA22 9RN www.theforestside.com
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