Aptly named, this four-star hotel and acclaimed restaurant in the Lake District sits in the lee of a steep slope of trees. A short walk from the centre of the petite but characterful village of Grasmere, the grey Lakeland stone building was once a Victorian manor and former farm; a plaque on one wall dates it back to 1853.
From July 2014, however, hotelier Andrew Wildsmith invested £4.5 million into the restoration of the site, which was in bad disrepair – and in 2015 Kevin Tickle, a Sharrow Bay Hotel and L’Enclume alumnus, was appointed head chef in the restaurant.
It’s a prestigious-sounding set up – and one that, for the most part, delivers. Not for nothing was the restaurant awarded one Michelin star and four AA Rosette Awards, with the hotel given an Editor’s Choice award by The Good Hotel Guide 2017. There is real quality here, with the food in particular excellent value for money – but as with the woodland that is The Forest Side’s backdrop, rogue seedlings can be found among the trees.
Beautiful sloping flower beds make a pleasant introduction to the house, with the interior a mix of reassuringly rural and determinedly modish: exposed wooden floors and wallpaper printed with a pretty profusion of birds sit alongside plush velvet sofas in unflinching colours. The design in the communal areas is generally assured, but does border on Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen levels of confidence in places; where the dining room is pleasingly restrained, with the wide windows out to the garden given the space to be the highlight that they are, the back sitting room is not all that soothing a place to sit in, its clash of metallic becoming strangely oppressive.
The bedrooms, too, have been subject to mixed attention. Why, when you’ve invested in an ‘exclusively designed Harrison Spinks bed’ (with more than 10,000 springs), would you then leave a large gap under the entry door to one of the master rooms – as well as denying your guests either a mini fridge or a full-sized wardrobe? The latter omission was particularly baffling: hang anything longer than a man’s shirt from the rail in the cubby hole provided and it will crumple on the carpet. That said, the bathroom was perfection – and those 10,000 springs really were worth it.
The Forest Side’s ten-course tasting menu distinguishes itself by having – alongside the usual, daunting complement of smoked custards, unusual butters and obscure greenery (sunset velvet, anyone?) – rare moments of true irreverence and wit. So it is that Cumbrian rare breed pork is served with ‘garden shenanigans’, one course is named after the chef’s daughter, and our waiter presents us, gravely, with a ‘Little Critter Fritter’ as an amuse-bouche (pork, rabbit and grey squirrel if you’re wondering). Heed, too, is paid to the fiddly bits that make you feel like this is fine dining; sickles of lemon or lime for your glass of water are dished out with tongs from a tiny silver plate, and a hot towel is offered after the appetisers.
The whole thing is a symphony in impressively local produce, with 90 per cent of the ingredients sourced within ten miles, and much of the menu foraged. Highlights – aside from the bold and polished list of matched wines – included the opening course of confit heritage potato, charcoal and mint, as fresh somehow as it was comforting, and an elegantly arranged piece of langoustine with cucumber, elderflower and pork cheek that was full of floral notes and sea spray, like a coastal walk on a summer’s day. Trickier, was a slightly punishing dish of burnt kale, horseradish and kohlrabi with pickled green walnuts – as acerbic, essentially, as it sounds.
The real shame, though, was that a couple of courses suffered from an excess of salt, which became a bit exhausting in an already long meal. Thankfully, desserts remedied things: prefaced with a cow’s milk, lemon verbena and raspberry palate cleanser, an exemplary pear cake provided sweetness and buttery warmth while the final medley of blackberries, douglas fir and cobnuts was a gloriously rich and frankly ballsy note to end on.
In summary, we can say this: in the land of historic poets and gingerbread recipes, this hotel and restaurant does have a refreshingly modern feel. So, if you go down to the lakes today, let it be to The Forest Side.