Editor's note: the chef since 2019 has been Robby Jenks.
The Samling was originally built in the 1780s as a large private house on a slope overlooking the northeast shore of Lake Windermere, set in an extensive 67 acre estate. A later owner called John Benson also owned a building in the nearby village of Grasmere called Dove Cottage, where a certain poet called William Wordsworth was a tenant for eight years. Wordsworth used to walk up to the Samling to pay his rent, and in this period wrote much of his best known poems, such as the famous “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud”. Fast forward to the present day, and The Samling has had a major refurbishment since I was last here. Gone is the poky dining room, which has been moved to a completely new extension with floor to ceiling windows and a fine view out over lake Windermere. There is a shiny new kitchen and wine cellar and a new head chef in the form of Peter Howarth, previously head chef of Gidleigh Park and who had also worked at The Latymer at Pennyhill Park. The dining room has well spaced tables covered with crisp white linen tablecloths. There were two menus on offer for diner, a seven course tasting menu at £80 and a ten course tasting menu at £100. Full vegetarian versions of both menus were available, and there was a shorter four course lunch menu at £45.
The extensive wine list had around 800 labels and started at £38, with plenty of choice under £50. Sample references were Riesling Hugel 2015 at £45 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £19, the excellent Hatzidakis Cuvée number 15 Assyrtiko 2014 at £75 compared to its retail price of £38, and JJ Prum Riesling Spatlese Bernkasteler Badstube 2012 at £90 for a wine that will set you back £37 in the high street. For those with the means there was Ornellaia Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri 2011 at £450 compared to its retail price of £179, and Vega Sicilia Unico 2004 at £680 for a wine whose current market value is £354.
The meal began with a trio of nibbles. A prawn cracker was topped with a tiger prawn, coconut gel and a Thai green curry gel. The prawn was good and this had a pleasantly fresh touch of acidity and a gentle hint of spice. Mochi (Japanese rice cake) was stuffed with nori (seaweed) and charred Chinese cabbage with pine nuts and sesame seeds that had been roasted with soy sauce. This was tasty, the nuts combining well with the cabbage. A steamed dumpling was stuffed with Lancashire cheese fondue and topped with sesame seeds and vinaigrette. This was the best of the nibbles, the dumpling having excellent texture and the touch of vinegar cutting through the richness of the cheese (16/20 nibbles).
Sourdough bread was made in the premises and was flavoured with seaweed, though fortunately the flavour was fairly subdued. It would seem sensible to offer a plain sourdough as well, as not everyone is a fan of seaweed. Offering only seaweed butter and a Marmite-like chef concoction made from four different seaweeds again seems to be ramming the kelp theme home a bit much. The texture of the bread itself was quite good, though perhaps the crust could have been a little crisper to my taste (15/20).
The first formal course of the meal was lobster with Isle of Wight tomatoes, courgette, rapeseed emulsion and Bloody Mary sorbet with rehydrated basil seeds. The lobster was tender and the tomatoes had reasonable flavour, the dish being elevated by the enjoyable, slightly nutty flavour of the emulsion and the sorbet, its hint of Tabasco coming through nicely (16/20).
A supposed take on a Reuben sandwich would puzzle a New York delicatessen owner in terms of its components, as in place of beef and cabbage was pigeon, with pumpernickel tuiles in place of slices of bread, though there were a couple of thin slices of Emmenthal cheese, so maintaining a tenuous link back to the Reuben sandwich. Additionally there was a mild mustard relish, beetroot relish and dill oil. The backstory of the dish seems stretched, but ignoring that the components worked nicely together. The pigeon had good flavour and was cooked rare, the gentle note of mustard lifting its flavour, the earthy beetroot contrasting with the richness of the cheese (16/20).
Turbot from a large 6kg fish (bigger is better with turbot) was poached in butter and blowtorched, served with mussels and an Alsace bacon jelly, sardines and a meat jus. The fish had nice flavour though could have been hotter when it arrived, but I liked the bacon jelly and the meat jus, which went well with the fish, the sturdy flavour of the turbot well able to stand up to the strong smoky note of bacon (15/20).
Mackerel was cured and then blowtorched, served with trout roe that had been soaked in kombu and compressed cucumbers, alongside brown shrimp and pickled cucumber. The mackerel had good flavour and the textural contrasts were effective, the pickled cucumber a good foil for the natural oiliness of the mackerel (16/20).
Lancashire suckling pig was served with langoustine tartare and finger lime in a spiced langoustine and coconut broth. The combination of the pork and lime was a good one, the acidity of the lime cutting through the richness of the pork, but I was less sure of the langoustine tartare. I love langoustine, and pork and langoustines work well together, but for me the langoustine would have been better if it had been cooked. Combining hot and cold things on a plate is tricky at the best of times, and this combination seemed odd. For me the spice level could be dialled up in the broth too. That said, the pork itself was good, with a nice crisp skin (14/20).
The meal got back in track with the next dish, scallop with crab and charred cabbage with shiso (perilla) and a buttery sauce. The scallop was superb, beautifully sweet, though the caramelisation on the top of the scallop was rather extreme. The cabbage was a good accompaniment though it was a touch salty, but the quality of the scallop was a joy. I am still unsure about the heavy caramelisation, but the scallop actually tasted fine (17/20, but I would have scored this even higher if the scallop had been less seared).
The final savoury course was Cartmel valley roe deer that had been barbecued and then blowtorched, served with barbecued eryngii (aka king oyster) mushrooms, veal sweetbread, confit turnip, turnip chutney and sansho pepper, with juniper oil and powder. This was a lovely dish, the venison having very good flavour, the sweetbread having its characteristic texture, with even the humble turnips keeping their end up. I am very fond of sansho pepper, a Japanese mountain pepper related to Sichuan pepper and having a similar though subtler numbing spiciness. For me this could have been bolder, but that is just being picky. There was a lot going on with this dish but the ingredient combination was harmonious (17/20).
In place of a regular board of cheese there was a plate featuring Colston Basset Stilton, Lancashire Bomb cheese with celery, grapes, lovage ice cream, honey truffle (a Hungarian mushroom with a vaguely sweet taste), truffle infused honey and a crisp cheese scone. Rhubarb trifle was, naturally enough here, deconstructed. There was stem ginger ice cream, rhubarb jelly, poached rhubarb, “rocks” of rhubarb that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen, savoiardi sponge fingers and custard. This was all rather lovely, the ginger flavour an effective combination with the rhubarb, which was not too sharp (16/20). Carrot cake featured raisins with candied walnuts, pulled carrot cake, carrots that had been cooked in star anise, molleux raisins and milk ice cream. Carrot is one of the few things that works in both savoury and sweet dishes, and the combination of flavours was pleasant (15/20). Panettone came with wild strawberries, Oakchurch berries, quark frosting, moscato and white chocolate. This was pleasant enough, but I have been completely spoilt by the ethereally light panettone from three star Michelin Le Calandre, and nothing else compares well to it (14/20).
Coffee was from a company called Farrer’s in Kendall, and was very pleasant. Service was excellent throughout, and there was a very pleasant sommelier that used to work at nearby Sharrow Bay (tip: don’t challenge him to a chess match afterwards). The bill came to £173, with more wine than a sensible person would drink. If you had the shorter menu and shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per head might be around £110. This was an impressive meal, and a step up from the cooking here when I last tried it.