With twelve years at Holbeck Ghyll and previous experience under Michelin starred chefs at (the now closed) Michael’s Nook, not to mention numerous stages in top end kitchens like Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, Dave McLaughlin is one of the most experienced head chefs in the Lake District. I was lucky to be able to chat to him before a busy day’s service.
His calm, thoughtful manner is reflected in his quiet, firm but fair management of his brigade of eight. Whilst his pastry chef has worked at Holbeck for 17 years, five more than himself, other members average two years service which he stresses is good for the restaurant industry. He accepts that whilst beautiful, the area offers a limited range of diversions for younger chefs in their spare time.
Dave describes his cooking style as “classical with modern twists.” Conscious of the need to appeal to a range of guests who dine, often for more than one night, he needs to keep his seasonally changing menu suitably varied, whilst avoiding outlandish yet fashionable combinations. This is partly why he eschews the excesses of molecular gastronomy and the faddishness of movements such as foraging. The main reason, however, is his love of classical cuisine.
Dave has neither a signature nor a favourite dish, but admits a preference for cooking fish dishes. His natural modesty means he dislikes being filmed, although he admires TV chefs who have previously made a success of their restaurant careers. He has little time for mere celebrity chefs with no real experience in the industry.
Asked what the unique selling point of his cooking would be, Dave emphasizes its consistency, which has been recognised by a Michelin star for twelve years running. This contrasts with other notable hotel restaurants in the area which have won then lost their stars.
As for the future, Dave is philosophical and takes each day as it comes. He is not complacent about his success but clearly enjoys being at Holbeck Ghyll.
In addition to its Michelin Star and three AA rosettes, the restaurant at Holbeck Ghyll has been awarded a host of accolades. With regular high marks in the Good Food Guide, this publication also named it Cumbrian Restaurant of the Year in 2010 and ranked it 23rd best in the country in 2011. In the same year, the Sunday Times Food list placed it 41st out of the top 100 restaurants.
The menu structure features a carte of five starters, mains and desserts plus the cheese trolley. A tasting menu of four savoury courses plus cheese and dessert can be taken with an optional flight of wines.
Our dinner on a Tuesday evening in late July began in the lounge with pre prandial drinks and well made canapés. Amongst these, a disc of duck boudin was well flavoured, its richness cut by a tiny quennel of fruit chutney. The white crab meat mayonnaise in a filo pastry case was sweet and fresh. A crumbed salmon goujon retained is fish’s moistness. And a deep fried risotto ball was both crisp and soft. The attention to detail here was impressive, auguring well for the rest of the meal.
A selection of breads – walnut and apricot, brown, white and cheese – were all well baked, with crisp crusts and firm textured crumb.
An amuse bouche of smoked chicken and celeriac veloute was pleasingly light with good depth of flavour.
With preliminaries over, the two starters immediately impressed.
Three large hand dived scallops from the west coast of Scotland had been seared to produce a caramelised crust and sweet, succulent flesh. Resting on a smooth puree of spiced cauliflower, and interspersed with tiny beignets of deep fried florets, the delectable bivalves were lifted by a puree of apple and raisin which added the citral note the dish needed. Whilst not original in its combination of ingredients – scallops, cauliflower and raisins have been used and abused by lesser chefs – the quality of the main ingredient, coupled with precise timing and clean presentation, made this a dish which could not be improved. The matching Chardonnay wine had an elegant minerality, a little citrus and oak which added roundness and pleasant mouth feel. (Wine: Macon –Solutre, Caves, Auvigne, 2011, Burgundy, France)
A warm mousse of foie gras had a good balance of liver, cream, egg and cognac, producing a light but rich “flan” poached to a gentle wobble. Now rarely prepared in all but the most classical of kitchens, this was a delightful way to enjoy the unctuous offal. Braised Puy lentils and tiny girolles provided a warm earthiness, whilst crisp pancetta and deep fried leeks added contrastingly crisp textures. The crowning glory was a simple pea foam which gave a lively freshness and vibrant colour to this well executed, visually stunning dish. The clean, crisp qualities of the accompanying Chenin Blanc, with its low acidity and minerality, provided an excellent foil to the essential richness of the mousse. (Wine: Rudera Chenin Blanc, Stellenboch, South Africa 2009)
A main course of roasted wild turbot amply demonstrated the chef’s skill in fish cookery. The dense firm flesh of the brilliant white fillet was perfectly cooked to retain its delicate sweetness. Creamed leeks, trompettes de mort, crisp ham and cubes of potato fondant were flavoursome, well judged garnishes, whilst the whole dish was brought together by an intense but not over reduced rich wine sauce.
Best end of Cumbrian lamb with a herb crust was cooked to a blushing pink which maximised its rich flavour and tender texture. The vegetable garnishes – olive gnocchi, confit peppers, sauted courgettes and aubergine caviar - evoked all the summery flavours of the Mediterranean. Again, the refined red wine saucing of this dish was major strength. The full bodied Cabernet Shiraz with its ripe plum and berry bouquet and spicy notes was another well chosen matching wine. (Wine: Cabernet Shirax Explorer; 2010, Langhorn Creek, South Australia)
Like the turbot dish, the lamb course did not experiment with unusual combinations or faddish modes of cooking, but used tried and tested combinations and techniques to produce a highly accomplished finished product, exemplifying the best of classical cooking.
An impressive trolley of nine British and four French cheeses, soft and hard, mild and strong, goat’s, cow’s and sheep’s, offered an embarrassment of choice. Thankfully, the restaurant had a cheese menu, the tasting notes of which greatly aided the final decision. The three chosen, Epoisses; Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Wigmore from Berkshire were all in perfect condition.
For desserts, the favoured approach is the assiette, which gives full scope to demonstrate classical techniques. Lionel, the pastry chef, has seventeen year experience at Holbeck, so a highly polished performance was anticipated and received.
A lemon plate featured a light mille feuille of lemon mousse; glazed lemon tart; rich lemon crème brulee; iced lemon parfait and a refreshingly intense lemon sorbet. Frankly, the assembly, a tour de force in itself, did not need the passion fruit sauce, except, perhaps, for colour contrast.
The other dessert chosen was equally accomplished and more inventive. Vanilla poached pineapple, velvety smooth coconut sorbet and tangy cubes of passion fruit jelly were set against deep fried banana beignets. This comprised a highly satisfying juxtaposition of flavours, textures and flavours which worked well together.
The selection of petit fours: chocolate truffle, orange tuile, Turkish delight, pistachio macaroon and salted caramel were all models of their kind. The only weakness in the whole meal was the blackberry jelly, which had too much gelatine. This is a tiny criticism in what proved to be a memorable meal, one that fully justified its Michelin star.
Food service was young, accommodating and knowledgeable. Being thoroughly professional, it avoided – thankfully – the relaxed casualness and over familiarity that can blight even the best restaurants.
Wines were expertly chosen by sommelier Stefan Lydka, who chose from a lavish and evolving list dominated by France which was awarded the Good Food Guide Wine List of the Year for 2009.
Given the skill of cooking, the distinguished wine list and the seamless service in the celebrated surroundings of a top country house hotel, it is little wonder that many diners return. They can be assured that their meal will be produced to a consistently high standard, using top quality ingredients, the sine qua non for a Michelin star.