Gilpin Hotel, Crook Road, Windermere LA23 3NP (01539 488818). Snacks and small dishes £5-£12. Larger dishes £12-£17.50 Desserts £6-£8. Wines from £22.
Gilpin Spice is an act of bravery, fashioned from raw wood, vibrant dangling lampshades, tamarind, garlic, ginger, noodles and open guttering flames. Its interest in southeast Asia and, in particular, Desi-Chinese food, a venerable amalgam of Chinese and Indian styles courtesy of Hakka immigration into Kolkata, would be bold down London’s Walworth Road. Here, just a polished stone’s throw from Windermere in the Lake District, it’s almost wilful.
Over the past few years, courtesy first of L’Enclume and then Forest Side, Holbeck Ghyll, the Old Stamp House, Lake Road Kitchen and a bunch of others, a Cumbrian food narrative has emerged. Intense chefs no longer merely want to cook your tea, they want to reflect and honour the landscape through their food. They want to rub up against a Herdwick or grapple fish from a babbling brook with their calloused bare hands.
Chefs forage relentlessly as if well-managed agriculture were some filthy, brazen intervention by the 17th century. Hard-crusted, unyielding sourdough is always part of the deal, as is cheesy butter which is either whipped or cultured or both. Invariably, dishes are plated up on bits of crockery for which the word “gnarled” was invented. You just know that people who call themselves artisans will have been involved in your lunch.
It’s easy to mock, which is obviously why I just did so. In truth the standard Lake District food story has led to both some very good restaurants and food. And that’s the point. This whole schtick has become so established that diverging from it, cooking in vibrant Technicolor as they do at Gilpin Spice, takes what the Mexicans call cojones and I’ll call guts, because I’m well dragged up. The man responsible is Hrishikesh Desai, a one-time Roux Scholarship winner with serious experience both here and in the US. He arrived at Gilpin Hotel and Lake House in 2015 courtesy of an Alex Polizzi BBC TV show which followed the Cunliffe family as they attempted to recruit a new chef for their hotel.
The rather fancy Hrishi restaurant came first, and soon picked up a star from a tyre company. The more laid-back Gilpin Spice opened in 2016. On a wintry lunchtime, the flames flickering a deep-orange welcome at the back of the open kitchen, it feels like exactly the right place to be. Outside there are views of snowy peaks; inside there is the promise of hot and sour and of roasted spice, a nod to the historic trade through nearby Whitehaven. The cooking here is determined to hit every one of your yielding sweet spots.
We start very much on the Indian side of the menu, with pani puri, the delicate pastry cups filled with chickpea curry, chaat masala and chopped raw onions (visit with a close friend). There is a small and extremely functional jug – just look how well it pours – with which to add a little hot and sour tamarind sauce. These have to go in your gob all in one, regardless of whether that’s your thing or not. It’s a whoosh of crunch, chilli and sweetness. A boisterous puffed rice salad is full of highly spiced nutty things you’ll be happily picking out of your teeth for days to come. There are flaky wedges of flatbread, still warm from the oven. Alongside them for dredging and dipping, there is a tamarind sauce, a tomato chutney and a sugary Thai-style chilli jam.
From the list of small plates comes a salad of little gem and pink grapefruit which hits the table with the glorious armpit funk of the fermented fish sauce used in the dressing. It’s both mildly repellent and thoroughly alluring; a plate full of the fresh and the dead. From the more delicate side of the ledger come thick pieces of seared salmon, on a bright yellow sauce of coconut, mustard and turmeric with cubes of pickled root vegetables. It’s all hinged between softness and bite. Smoked mashed potato is pelted with cumin and chilli, formed into cakes, then deep-fried and served on a Thai-inflected chickpea salad, blowsy with pumpkin chutney and dribbled with yogurt spun through ginger. If these descriptions are not making you purse your lips and Google train schedules, then frankly, I despair.
Bigger dishes are playful. Southern Indian buttermilk fried turkey demands to be taken seriously. Here come crisply coated bits of bird, on a huge sauce full of star anise and orange zest, alongside candied beetroot. A round of saddleback pork belly is rubbed with five spice and roasted in a wood-fired oven for 12 hours before being finished on the rotisserie. It is served with a big, sticky, honeyed pork jus. It is a plateful fixed somewhere between a slab of Cantonese roasted meat and a fine Cumbrian Sunday roast fed to you by someone who thinks you’re not looking after yourself properly. These are all good things. Against this, a big bold stew of bouncy paneer and sweet onions with handfuls of fresh curry leaves and ginger feels sweetly traditional and Indian. No matter: for carbs we order a big bowl of noodles, dressed with garlic oil, with the smokiness of a hot wok, all of which drags it back from India towards China. (We could have gone so much further along this road: they serve five-spiced duck confit with a damson and plum sauce, to be wrapped up in pancakes.)
Desserts are mixed. A set cream claims to be flavoured with cardamom but that’s missing in action, so it’s just solid panna cotta. Much better is a pear poached in red wine, filled with kaffir lime leaf ice-cream and then given a deep lake of warm cinnamon custard to lounge about in like it’s got nothing better to do. Or just soothe the chilli and sugar hit with scoops of sprightly strawberry and Thai basil or yogurt and black pepper sorbets.
We are being good people and so are off the booze, but there is an extensive list of teas, served in dinky ceramic pots for top-ups. It’s all extremely civilised and, as long as you have a pronounced sweet tooth, a lot of fun. For locals, who may have had their fill of tweezered platefuls, representing the rugged, sheep-dunged Cumbrian hills, it must be a complete godsend.
After eating at the much revered Skosh in York, the founders of the nearby Cooper King Distillery have collaborated with the restaurant to produce a bespoke gin. It includes black cardamom, nori, mandarin zest and Sichuan peppercorns and is designed specifically to complement chef Neil Bentinck’s cooking. It’s being served at Skosh and is also available to buy there (skoshyork.co.uk).
Koconut Grove in Chester is an elegant white box of a restaurant, focusing on the food of Kerala, southern India. So, alongside options from the tandoor, there are lots of fabulous lacy dosas, savoury pancakes made from a fermented batter of rice and lentil flour. Do not miss the masala dosa, filled with spiced potatoes and fried onions (koconutgrove.co.uk).
The Gingerman group, run by Brighton stalwart chef Ben McKellar, is to open a fifth business in the city, on Hannington’s Lane. Flint House, the first of theirs not to have the word “ginger” in its title, will be a “casual dining” restaurant, based around “small plates”. But of course.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1