Eating out is one of my favourite things to do. I spend a bit too much time and money trying to get to some of the best restaurants in the UK and around the world, as many foodies and people who work in the hospitality industry do. But now I have a fantastic excuse to visit even more top establishments as often as possible (if I ever needed one...)!
'Forking Good Food' is a monthly blog documenting all things delicious; restaurant visits, recipes, industry news and opinion. Drink it in, share it on Twitter, tell me where I NEED to go next and let's discover more of the not-so-hidden gems that UK food industry has to offer!
2 Star vs. New Start
Last month I was lucky enough sample two restaurants that were both very high up on my list of ‘British Restaurants I Absolutely Must Visit” One is a British culinary institution; with a chef-proprietor who has appeared on Great British Menu most years since 2007 (as a winner & a ‘veteran’), released an award winning & industry-adored (cook/chef) book, and retained his 2 Michelin stars for the past 5 years. These achievements all stem from his humble yet outrageous 40 seater restaurant nestled in the juxtaposed surroundings of a motorway slip road and an electrical pylon. It is of course Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham.
By stark contrast, the other restaurant is 200 miles north in the Lake District in perhaps one of the most idyllic settings of any restaurant in the world, let alone the England. This restaurant clings to the side of the Cumbrian forest from which everything from the furniture to the crockery is so clearly influenced. This is The Forest Side - the new home of ex-L’Enclume sous chef, Kevin Tickle, situated on the edge of the picturesque town of Grasmere. After an agonising year of Instagram teasers & Twitter temptations, the team at the Forest Side have finally been able to unleash their idiosyncratic food ethos on the British culinary scene, and are unsurprisingly making some pretty mountainous waves.
I never intended on comparing these two restaurants, but after eating at both within 5 days, I was amazed at how a meal from an industry newcomer at The Forest Side stood up so well to a stalwart of the UK Michelin guide, Restaurant Sat Bains.
The Forest Side
Nothing makes a better amuse bouche than a stroll through The Forest Side’s vastly diverse kitchen garden. Now a lot of restaurants these days have kitchen gardens, an almost extreme demonstration of a chef’s commitment to reducing food miles & sourcing the freshest ingredients. But we shouldn’t forget that in the UK, the first chef to fully embrace this food ethos was Kevin Tickle’s previous boss, Simon Rogan. Foraging is also becoming a must in the country’s top kitchens, but when you stop to take in the lush surroundings of the Lake District’s valleys, rivers, walls and trees, you can see why Chef Tickle is taking advantage of this ever-expanding larder.
Shortly after learning about all the different & often incredibly obscure varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs & flowers growing in the Forest Side’s front garden, we were taken through to the beautifully designed restaurant. With tables up-cycled from the hotel’s original floorboards, adorned with cumbrian moss & bark, and a striking glass table with a tree-top base bang in the middle of the restaurant, there is an incredible sense of place & locality.
This feeling carries over into the food with absolute perfection. The menu treats you to a showcase of Cumbrian foraged and home-grown ingredients; and I mean more than just a token sorrel leaf or two: Foraged wild garlic flowers sit atop an onion cracker with locally smoked eel, their own duck prosciutto mingles with nasturtium and green walnuts. It’s not just leaves however, the incredibly porky aged middle-white is paired with the familiar flavour of carrot and maple - except it’s local umbellifers (carrots & chervil in this case) and birch sap tapped from the magnificent birch trees watching over the hotel on the forest side. A stunningly balanced desert - with a main ingredient of sea buckthorn foraged from the cumbrian coast - is a masterclass in keeping a dish not too sweet, slightly bitter, sharp and earthy.
The incredible tasting menu at The Forest Side, Cumbria
Everything is presented with a relaxed & naturalistic style - with immense precision and attention to detail. I would’ve happily had another helping of EVERY course, which is not always the case on tasting menus that aim to showcase the kitchen’s wide range of ideas and techniques. But this is what made my meal at The Forest Side feel so accomplished. This was not a lunch with any teething problems. None of the professional, knowledgeable, yet relaxed front of house team seemed out of touch or confused as to what the ethos of the hotel was. The menu flowed with the same combination of elegance and force as that of the nearby Cumbrian waterfalls. This was a strong restaurant concept executed to perfection by everyone involved - surely enough to warrant at least one star from Michelin?
To see how close The Forest Side were to Michelin success, I decided to pop down to Sat Bains 4 days later… Just, because.
Restaurant Sat Bains
A night of intense flavour and impeccable service followed - 10 courses (plus a couple of chef’s treats!) that took you on a journey through texture & temperature, sweet, sour, umami, bitter, and salt. It was all that I had expected; Sat Bains’ iconic dishes executed with precision in flavour & presentation. From his trademark NG7 2SA dish, using lovage, nasturtium and horseradish to an incredible beef tartar - which although is served raw, altogether tastes like the based steak you’ve ever eaten thanks to the cooked mushroom and beef fat elements - and of course the richness of the meat due to the 80day plus ageing process.
Highlights from Sat Bains' Tasting Menu
The food was without doubt, impressive and worthy of its reputation. I felt almost star-struck, not at meeting the man himself, but at being able to devour some of the iconic dishes that are posted on his Instagram throughout their development process - all the way from a sketch to a first draft in ‘Nucleus’ to the finished dish on the main tasting menu.
The Forest Side was a last minute booking, and a surprisingly epic meal. Perhaps my lack of expectation or build-up was clouding my judgement slightly - but if I try and be as objective and picky as possible, I actually found lower lows at the 2 Michelin star stalwart, and higher highs at the Cumbrian newcomer. Sat Bains will no-doubt retain (and possibly even surpass) it’s 2 Michelin star rating; food at this level not only has to be perfect, but challenging too. But the real excitement I think is in seeing what the guides think of Kevin Tickle & Co.’s version of Cumbria on a plate. To steal a phrase from my other passion of football: If your good enough, you’re old enough. Mr Michelin, get them in the guide.
Which restaurants shall I visit next? Are Michelin stars still a worthy mark of quality? Is the UK food scene outgrowing the 'Michelin standard'?! Let us know in the comments below!
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