Editor's note: head chef Ian Swainson moved on at the end of 2015. His replacement is Nick Edgar, until recently head chef of Le Manoir au Quat' Saison.
The Samling is a boutique hotel and restaurant set on a hillside overlooking lake Windermere. There is a pretty little garden terrace where you can have a drink in nice weather and take in the lovely view over the water. The dining room is quite small and sparsely decorated, with plenty of natural light. This was my second meal here, and since that time there has been quite a bit of investment in the property, with a new vegetable garden and greenhouse now supplying much of the produce that appears on the plate as well as a new development kitchen. There was music playing in the dining room, but at a low volume. The full tasting menu was £80 but there was a cheap lunch at £45 as well as the a la carte.
The wine list is pretty much the same as last time, a little old-fashioned and aggressively priced in the upper reaches of the list. Example wines were Montes Sauvignon Blanc 2012 at £28 for a wine with a shop price of £8, Meyer Riesling 2008 at £50 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £16, and Au Bon Climat Hildegard at £100 for a wine that retails at £29. Bachey-Legros Chassagne Montrachet was an absurd £160 compared to its shop price of £29, and Pierre-Andre Aloxe Corton 2011 was a surreal £245 for a wine that you can find in a shop for £37. Cost d’Estournel 2001 was £500 compared to a retail price of £95, and so it goes on. Weirdly, the markups seem worse higher up the list than for the basic wines, the opposite of what is usual. The prices are notionally set at a gross profit of 70%, but many wines on this list are far higher priced than this would suggest, and no-one interested in wine is likely to want to spend money here, given the excessive pricing; compare and contrast to the fairly priced list at nearby l’Enclume for example. I gather that a complete revamp of the wine list is in progress, though it is taking a long time and cannot come soon enough. I drank water.
Nibbles today were pork skin shallot rings that were pleasant but overly salty, even to my taste (14/20). Better was a truffled croquette, enjoyably cheesy with a crisp coating (16/20). Bread was made from scratch, a choice of sourdough and fennel seed slices, rosemary focaccia or white roll, served warm. The best of these was the delicate focaccia, and it is good to see a restaurant making its own bread, which is more than plenty of high end restaurants in London manage to do (16/20).
A nibble of dashi custard with sea urchin, coriander cress and soy sauce reminded me of the umami flan at Hedone. This was a very good dish, the texture excellent, the savoury flavour of the dashi coming through well (16/20). Mi-cuit (partially cooked) salmon came with baby beetroot and golden beetroot, grapefruit segments, liquorice gel sheet, a liquorice crisp and garnish of fennel. I thought the grapefruit worked well, bringing its acidity to the dish, but as ever these days the farmed salmon had limited flavour. Personally I would rather have salmon either raw, cured or cooked rather than in this style (14/20).
A pretty salad had a base of asparagus mousse topped with goat curd, quail egg confit, warm ham hock fritter and slices of pickled vegetables. Carrot, radish, and baby onion all put in an appearance, with herbs and flowers from the greenhouse and vinaigrette scented with truffle. This was an excellent dish, the good quality vegetables going well with the fritter, the dressing well balanced (16/20).
The next dish involved some theatre in the form of a coffee percolator that was brought to the table. An Asian broth was prepared by placing in top part of machine a selection of herbs, coriander and cinnamon sticks, star anise, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, galangal and pepper corns. As the machine heats up, the water in the bottom bubbles up to the upper receptacle to create an infusion of the herbs. When ready the heat is switched off and the infused broth drops down to lower receptacle. In a separate dish there was toasted rice panna cotta, pan-seared turbot, pan-seared squid, samphire, sea purslane, seaweed, coriander cress, pearl of concentrated soy with a squid tentacle fish broth set by an agar jelly. The broth is poured over the fish to complete the dish. After all that effort, the dish in itself was enjoyable, but is really just some turbot in a pleasant Asian broth that is a touch tricky to eat from its small bowl. It is a nice dish, but for me the theatre outweighed the flavour (15/20).
Jacobs Ladder beef (short ribs) was cooked for 48 hours in a water bath wrapped in smoked oil and charcoal, then finished on the stove. I think the idea is to mimic the effect of charcoal grilling. This was served with a brisket crisp dehydrated and coated in marmite, alongside cabbage and raw turnip, goat curd, enoki mushroom, a sprinkle of burnt onion powder and cow whey sauce. Another elaborate dish, but here I felt the technique was at the expense of the result. Why not just take some tender beef and charcoal grill it? The meat tender but not great, and the nice vegetables needed something sharp to cut through the richness (14/20 at best).
Cheese was extra at £6.50 and was a quite substantial board, a mix of French and British cheese that are delivered weekly. These were in good condition. Pre-dessert was deconstructed apple crumble, with Granny Smith sorbet, Gold rush apple granita topped with salted pecan granola. There was a fake apple made up of crème patissiere, stewed apple compote that had been dipped in red apple jelly, garnished with apple marigold from the greenhouse. This was a lovely dish, in this case the clever technical cooking not getting in the way of the flavours. The “apple” had good texture and the sorbet was excellent (17/20).
Black Forest gateau was another exercise in deconstruction. Chocolate and cherry tart was nice, served with cherry coulis and dehydrated chocolate sponge. I did not enjoy the latter, the technical cooking resulting in a texture worryingly like that of a bath sponge. Mini cherries with set vanilla custard inside had a swirl of vanilla ice cream, and a hot chocolate and cherry sauce was poured onto this at the table. I liked most elements of this dish but the overall enjoyment was dragged down by the dehydrated sponge, and you have to ask yourself whether an old fashioned gateau was any less enjoyable than this very cheffy version (14/20).
Service was excellent, mainly in my case from a charming French waitress from the Loire area called Jennifer, who was patient and friendly and had excellent knowledge of the dishes; she knew all the cheeses backwards. The bill with just water to drink was £98 for one person. If you went a la carte and shared a bottle of modest wine then a typical bill would be around £95 a head. Overall this was an enjoyable experience, the desserts in particular better than last time, with higher quality vegetables being used in the earlier courses. The cooking is quite technical and can be over complicated at times, though the final dishes generally work well. Overall it seemed to me that the cooking was rather more assured and consistent than at my last visit but the wine list is in serious need of revamping.