[Ambleside, Cumbria] Old Stamp House

You know how it is with some restaurants? As soon as you walk in, you just know everything’s going to be fine - the worries of the world lift from your shoulders and you settle down to good food and faultless service. Well, the Old Stamp House wasn’t like that. I suppose it started with the cock-up on the water order – what was ordered was sparkling, what arrived was still. I suppose you can almost expect that sort of thing when the guy who we assumed was the owner or manager works without writing down the orders. Especially when he was very interested in chatting away with customers who were probably regulars. To be fair, the other two members of staff seemed on the ball. But everything took just a little too long to happen – delays between courses, delay with the bill, delay with the card machine (he was still chatting). It let down the food that was coming out of the kitchen.

There were a couple of amuse bouche – or snacks as the restaurant prefers to call them (and I’m with them on that). A black pudding bon-bon was really savoury and contrasted well with the dab of Cumberland sauce. Then a beetroot and horseradish macaron and a little havver-cake topped with potted char. Well, they do say their food is inspired by Cumbria. And then bread is served – good bread. Slices of soda bread and a small loaf of beer bread.

The menu is short – just four choices at each course. Crab from Ravenglass was in the form of a salad as summery as you like. And a small fillet of mackerel was skilfully cooked – the skin crisp and deliberately blackened, while the flesh was barely cooked through.

John Dory featured as a main course, along with fashionably charred cauliflower, shrimps and a very light curry sauce. And, if that was light and summery, the other plate could happily run through the year. Herdwick hogget came three ways – a couple of slices of very pink loin, long cooked breast in a crisp crumb (think fishcake) and delicious braised soldier. You’re eating possibly the most flavoursome breed of sheep in the country and, as hogget, one with a good age spent running up and down the fells. It’s a lamb lover’s delight. There was shallot and tenderstem broccoli counting towards the five-a-day and a couple of goats cheese gnocchi providing a bit of carb.

Elderflower curd finished off the very summery feel of the meal on the other side of the table. It was balanced by strawberry sorbet and sauce. None of the desserts particularly appealed to me, so I took the cheese – a selection of five British ones, including Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire and a powerful Cumbrian blue cheese (name forgotten). It came with more of the havver cake acting as biscuits, quince jelly and a sweet and fruity chutney.

So, we went along nicely fed, but the service issues, while not major, did detract from this being a really enjoyable evening. It reinforced my irrational prejudice against restaurants in cellars and basements that they are never as good as I’d hope they will be. Yes, as I say, it’s irrational.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold