It looks like the Cluedo murder mystery mansion.
Forest Side hotel, a striking Gothic building dating back to the 1850s, is surrounded by dark and moody fells on a wooded hillside at the edge of the Lake District village of Grasmere.
From the outside looking in, I could imagine Colonel Mustard plotting to take someone out with a revolver in the library or a candlestick in the billiard room.
This grand facade is a dramatic build-up to what lies inside – Forest Side restaurant, a place fast becoming one of Britain’s best destinations for gastronomy, with one Michelin star and four AA Rosettes. It was recently named one of the top 10 restaurants in the UK by the restaurant review site SquareMeal.
But despite its stately setting and figurative trophy cabinet, the 30-cover restaurant is entirely void of stuffiness or pretension, as myself and my mum discover when we book in for dinner and a night’s stay.
Ailbhe MacMahon dines at the Michelin-starred Forest Side restaurant, set within a hotel of the same name at the edge of the Lake District village of Grasmere
As well as boasting a Michelin star, the Forest Side has been awarded four AA Rosettes and was recently named one of the top 10 restaurants in the UK by the restaurant review site SquareMeal
Inside the restaurant, the decor is simple, with white walls and tables crafted from reclaimed timber flooring. Cork-bound menus feature pretty watercolour paintings by artist William Heaton Cooper, famed for his bucolic depictions of the Lake District.
The staff, dressed in smart beige slacks and waistcoats, are easygoing yet attentive. They’re clearly passionate too, armed with the knowledge of the provenance of ingredients that the restaurant serves.
As our eight-course tasting menu begins, a fat leather wallet of cutlery is placed before me. I’m told to help myself to whichever size forks, knives or spoons take my fancy as the dinner unfolds – there’s no fuss over working your way up to the fish knife here.
You won’t find overly fancy menu descriptions, either. It’s a deliberate decision. ‘I’d like to think our menu reads as though you’d want to eat it,’ Head Chef Paul Leonard tells me.
The view of Grasmere from the north. The majority of ingredients that appear in the Forest Side’s dishes have been foraged or farmed in the Lake District
The hotel is housed in a striking Gothic mansion that dates back to the 1850s. ‘It looks like the Cluedo murder mystery mansion,’ says Ailbhe
The Hull-born chef, who has been running the show since 2019, continues: ‘I think you can certainly tell the difference between chefs who cook for ego and chefs who cook for the guests. Ultimately, we’re here [to] please guests. That’s our remit.’
That mission is accomplished. We overhear a man at the table next to us saying that the hand-dived Scottish scallop dish is one of the best things he’s ever eaten. I can see why he’s so rapturous. The scallop is steeped in a sauce made using buttermilk and mustard. It’s a tangy, garlicky showstopper – and there are more to come.
A delectable carousel of dishes emerges from the kitchen – pickled beetroots with sheep’s yoghurt; poached North Sea cod swimming in a brown shrimp sauce; a moreish barbecued hen of the woods mushroom. Another highlight is a ‘snack’ of cured egg yolk layered with a brown butter hollandaise sauce, served in a little scalloped cup made of beer batter.
The bread is a revelation too. It’s a loaf of milk bread coated with homemade marmite, teamed with thick, salty butter that’s churned in nearby Kendal.
Head Chef Paul Leonard, pictured, tells Ailbhe: ‘I think you can certainly tell the difference between chefs who cook for ego and chefs who cook for the guests. Ultimately, we’re here [to] please guests’
A fish dish served at Forest Side. You won’t find overly fancy menu descriptions at the restaurant, Ailbhe reveals. When asked how he comes up with his brilliantly inventive menus, chef Leonard says: ‘We just look outside’
Ailbhe is served a loaf of milk bread coated with homemade marmite (left) and a strip of custard-stuffed rhubarb sitting on a bed of ginger crumble (right) for dessert
A waiter wheels over a heaving cheese trolley at the end of the meal
We opt for the wine pairing and find it’s a beautiful, not to mention interesting, roster of wines. It starts off strong with a refreshing white from the Vukoje winery in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with other standouts including a fruity Tokaji Szamorodni white from Hungary.
Staff drop by and share little anecdotes behind the dishes, such as revealing how one of the cheeses – wheeled over on a heaving cheese trolley – has been made by a Dutch woman who fell in love with an Irish goat farmer.
Then on to dessert – another masterclass in deftly working British ingredients to their full potential, with a strip of custard-stuffed rhubarb sitting on a bed of ginger crumble.
When asked how he comes up with his brilliantly inventive menus, Leonard says: ‘We just look outside.’ That’s his way of saying everything is seasonal, and the majority of ingredients have been foraged or farmed in the Lake District, whether it’s sourcing Herdwick hogget lamb from a farmer down the road, uprooting leeks from the banks of a stream in Grasmere or hunting for wild garlic on the hotel’s grounds.
Upstairs, bedrooms with vast bay windows are perfectly angled to take in this Lake District landscape. The mansion is built on the ‘forest-side’ hill that features in William Wordsworth’s poem Michael, in which he tells the tale of the tragic life of a shepherd. Distinctive Helm Crag, its rocky summit known as the ‘Lion and the Lamb’ to locals, can be seen to the north.
Distinctive Helm Crag, its rocky summit known as the ‘Lion and the Lamb’ to locals, can be seen to the north of the property
Avocado, tomato relish and poached eggs on toast for breakfast
In my ‘Rose’ guest room – one of 20 – twin beds are framed by a white canopy and the carpets underfoot are made from local Herdwick wool. Freshly baked rhubarb tarts are perched on the dressing table, along with a thoughtful jug of fresh milk for teas and coffees. It’s luxurious yet homely at the same time. Forest Side hotel is part of the boutique Wildsmith Hotels portfolio, and the same cosy-luxe atmosphere is conjured up in its beautiful sister hotel, Hipping Hall, a honey-coloured cluster of grade II-listed buildings at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.
The following morning, after waking up to a view of the sun rising over the vale of Grasmere, my mum and I wander downstairs for breakfast. It’s another culinary feat – tart berry smoothies, bowls of sliced grapefruit doused with fresh mint and ginger, and bread laden with tomato relish, avocado and eggs.
We then set our sights on the garden. After its construction, the house passed through several owners – one was a 70-year-old silversmith, Charles Frederick Young, and his 20-year-old bride, a Ms Emily Barker – before falling into disrepair in the 20th century. When the mansion was renovated in 2014, the tangle of overgrowth on the grounds was ripped out, unearthing a spectacular Victorian walled garden.
Ailbhe says that the restaurant’s wine pairings comprise ‘a beautiful, not to mention interesting, roster of wines’. Above is the Forest Side hotel’s bar
The hotel’s lounge. During a stay, guests can explore the hotel’s spectacular Victorian walled garden
One of the 20 guest rooms at the hotel, which is part of the boutique Wildsmith Hotels portfolio
‘If you ever needed an excuse to come to the Lake District, Forest Side is it,’ writes Ailbhe
It’s here that a team of gardeners work hard to nurture the plants that are woven through Forest Side’s Michelin-starred menus. We pass through an iron gate and poke our heads into the polytunnels, home to radishes and chard, pak choi, forget-me-not flowers. One of the gardeners, Lucy, beckons us inside the greenhouse to let us try some of the herbs they’ve been instructed to grow, from an oyster leaf that tastes like the sea to Aztec sweet herb, which acts as a natural sweetener.
She introduces us to a tulbaghia leaf – if you crush it between your fingers it smells like garlic. Apparently, the kitchen uses the leaf in dishes because it provides a garlicky taste without the notorious garlic breath.
Gardeners do a harvest every morning, presenting fresh ingredients to Leonard and his team in time for lunch service at 12. Reflecting on how he runs this well-oiled culinary machine, Leonard says: ‘I see a lot of people using bits because they’ve seen someone else use it on Instagram or something, and sometimes it’s a bit detrimental to a dish. It’s quite cool and fashionable, but that’s not me. I’m not cool or fashionable… everything on my plate is there for a reason.’
He adds: ‘So I’m just going to carry on with using fresh, seasonal produce and cooking it properly, and no gadgets or anything in the kitchen. We use a pan, a spoon and a shedload of butter. And that does us well.’
If you ever needed an excuse to come to the Lake District, Forest Side is it. The restaurant plates up incredible food that’s been cooked with a lot of heart – come while you can still get a table.
Ailbhe was a guest of Forest Side. An eight-course dinner tasting menu is £130, with a wine pairing for £95. For more information, visit theforestside.com. To visit Forest Side’s sister hotel, Hipping Hall, and its restaurant run by chef Peter Howarth, visit hippinghall.com.
Pros: Forest Side’s menus are thoughtful, delicate and delicious, with each course a standout in its own right. There are beautiful wines to try and luxurious, comfortable rooms to retire to post-dinner. The beauty of the Lake District is right on your doorstep.
Cons: It is very expensive to dine there, particularly if you opt for wine pairing. It’s definitely a special occasion sort of place. You can also take a seat at lunchtime when tasting menus are cheaper.
Rating out of five: *****