The Samling hotel, whose original building dates from the 1780s, sits in isolation in 67-acre grounds, with 11 bedrooms and a lovely view over lake Windemere from its north-eastern shore. The dining room, with just five tables, is on the ground floor and has a partial view over the lake. There is a separate additional small dining section on the other side of the lounge when the restaurant is busy; the dining capacity is just 22 guests, though I gather that there are plans to extend this. The room has a wooden floor and well-spaced tables, covered with crisp white linen tablecloths. The walls are painted a vaguely mushroom colour.
Executive chef Ian Swainson moved to the Samling in 2011, after being head chef at l’Ortolan under Alan Murchison and training at La Becasse in Ludlow. The restaurant picked up top spot at the 2012 Boutique Hotel Awards for Best Dining Hotel, not just in the UK but globally. At dinner five courses were priced at £50, with a seven course tasting menu available at £65; lunch was available at just £25 a person.
The wine list was lengthy and expensive. There were around 225 wines ranging in price from £28 to £8,000, with a median price of £85. Mark-ups were very high, on average 3.6 times the retail price, which would raise eyebrows even in Knightsbridge. Around three quarters of the wines were from France, with a decent selection from Australia and a smattering from other countries such as Argentina. A third of the list was under £60, so at least there was plenty of choice at this pricing level, though the mark-ups mean that there was little scope for bargains; champagnes were the least marked-up category of wines. Example wines included Pinot Grigio, Collio, Villa Russiz 2007 at £50 for a wine that retails at £14, Te Mata Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 at a fierce £80 for a wine that you can find in the high street for around £13, and the excellent Guigal Condrieu 2008 at £125 for a wine that you can buy in a shop for £30. Grander wines show no let up in mark-up, with Cheval Blanc 1982 at 4.6 times its retail price. The Gewürztraminer Trimbach Ribeaupierre 1988 was a relative bargain at £95 for a wine that costs £52 retail. There are apparently plans to revamp the list considerably in 2013, which would be welcome, as at present it seems old-fashioned and costly.
Bread was made from scratch and comprised a choice of sourdough slices, white roll and multi-seed mini-loaf. It is good that the go to the trouble of making the bread, though the white roll was a little doughy in texture to my taste (still 14/20 bread). The lunch menu at The Samling was priced at £25 for three courses plus two sets of canapés. Quail Scotch egg was nicely made, with boldly seasoned filling, and there was also a bowl of salted nuts. A saffron croquette with red pepper mayonnaise and Parma ham had rather subdued, subtle flavour, which is no bad thing in the case of saffron, which can bring a metallic taste to dishes.
This was followed by a further nibble of warm chicken livers with parsnip, parsnip purée and lime emulsion. The livers were carefully cooked and the parsnip crisp provided a good textural contrast to the element, though for me the lime emulsion should have had greater acidity (15/20). Serving it in a little bowl rather than on a plate made it a little tricky to eat, but the liver had very good flavour.
My starter was a pretty dish of duck liver parfait with orange emulsion and carrot gel, the liver parfait smooth and with pleasingly intense flavour, balanced well by the acidity of the orange and the earthy hint of carrot (16/20). My only comment would be as to why, given that I had ordered a liver parfait starter, I was offered a chicken liver nibble.
My main course was pork neck served on a bed of spinach, with a fondant of burnt apple, charred cauliflower and a deeply flavoured sauce of the cooking juices. The pork was carefully cooked and had plenty of flavour, well seasoned and nicely balanced by the acidity of the apple, with the cauliflower and spinach complementing the pork (16/20).
Dessert was less successful, a "tart" of butternut squash on a chocolate sable base, served with mango sorbet and passion fruit meringue with passion fruit curd. The mango sorbet had good texture and plenty of fruit flavor, and the passion fruit worked well with the chocolate, but I didn't think that the butternut squash fitted well with the other elements (14/20). Illy coffee was good, served with a trio of petit fours in a little wooden box: warm lemon Madeleine, Black Forest gateau macaroon and salted fudge. I liked the texture of the Madeleine but the macaroon could have been lighter, while its filling had rather muted flavour. Service was very good, the waitress friendly, helpful and attentive. This was a good value lunch, and it was nice to see a restaurant taking its cheap lunch menu seriously rather than using it as an opportunity to offload leftovers, as sometimes happens in London restaurants.