The renaissance of Rothay Manor in Ambleside

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 May 2017

A dish at Rothay Manor Photo: Polly A Baldwin

A dish at Rothay Manor Photo: Polly A Baldwin

Polly A Baldwin

Ambleside’s Rothay Manor has new owners with new ideas and a chef who is creating some culinary masterpieces. Roger Borrell reports.

Chef Brandon Shepherd at work in the kitchen Photo: Polly A BaldwinChef Brandon Shepherd at work in the kitchen Photo: Polly A Baldwin

I sat in the dining room at Rothay Manor waiting for my breakfast to arrive, wondering if I could pluck up the courage to ask for some dripping for my toast.

Let me explain. I hadn’t suddenly been transported back to the days of ration books when a dollop of dripping was all that stood between me and another dose of rickets.

No, I was dwelling on the previous night’s dinner when the head chef Brandon Shepherd had conjured up a meal which would have given any restaurant in the north a run for its money. But the thing that really stuck in my mind was being offered not just butter to spread on the delicious, freshly made bread, but a little pot of dripping.

For the uninitiated – and vegetarians should look away now – this is the unctuous fat that oozes from roasted meat and, when cold, is wonderful spread onto bread. Just mentioning it sets off a claxon in the offices of the Food Police. But, by heck, it does taste good.

The dining room at Rothay Manor Photo: Polly A BaldwinThe dining room at Rothay Manor Photo: Polly A Baldwin

We all get a little jaded eating the same stuff in restaurants so finding something new, but with a nod to times past, was a good way to start what was a memorable dinner full of very pleasing surprises.

This Ambleside hotel, built as a family home in 1825, has been going through a renaissance since being bought by a hard working (some may say foolhardy) young couple called Jenna and Jamie Shail. For decades it had been run by the Nixon family who had a loyal following.

After successful jobs in finance and fashion, the Shails opted for radical career changes by buying and managing upmarket ski chalets in the French Alps. That meant there was something like seven months down-time each year until the snows returned – it sounds great but you get the impression the Shails aren’t the sort of people to sit on their hands for long.

A mixture of childhood holiday memories and the fact a close relative lived in Ambleside persuaded them to branch out into the Lakes where Rothay Manor was on the market for £2.4 million.

A dish at Rothay Manor Photo: Polly A BaldwinA dish at Rothay Manor Photo: Polly A Baldwin

They decided getting the dining experience bang on would be cornerstone of what they wanted to achieve. They were dead right. Refurbishment began with the two old dining rooms – one a nice space and the other a shade grim. Structural changes and some very classy décor resulted in the two rooms joining together to become the sophisticated light-filled focal point of the hotel. And this wasn’t a case of rich young things snapping their fingers and bringing in a squad of workmen – they rolled up their sleeves and spent many long nights painting and decorating.

A fine dining room needs a fine chef and Brandon fitted the bill. They knew him from France where he catered for people staying in the chalets. He also cut his teeth in Michelin-starred kitchens and had a reputation for creativity.

While a few traditional meat and two veg customers might have been put off by his take on modern British cuisine, there is now a new generation enjoying food that secured the Rothay Manor two AA rosettes within just five weeks of Brandon firing up the ovens.

Using a local butcher who hangs his lamb for three weeks and venison from Langdale, Brandon has created a menu that has the ability to surprise and delight in equal portions. He’s also in the process of creating his own kitchen garden.

Brandon Shepherd in the kitchen garden Photo: Polly A BaldwinBrandon Shepherd in the kitchen garden Photo: Polly A Baldwin

Starters of chicken oysters, black truffle, salsifywith granny smith apple and another of pork cheek with pancetta and the deep, earthy flavours of beetroot in various guises were plate-lickingly good.

Two mains – Ambleside hogget which combined loin, belly and shoulder ‘bolognaise’ and halibut with anchovy puree and fabulous fennel meringue were certainly enough to secure a third rosette on the spot. Desserts included a wonderfully theatrical chocolate dome with a sumptuous hit of cocoa.

As well as producing some sensational flavours, Brandon and his team – aided by some excellent, smiley service – produced dishes that were works of art. For once, style was matched by substance.

For residents, the public rooms are comfortable and well appointed and the night was spent in a beautiful garden room with an enormous bed with a high-end bathroom, excellent for relaxing after a hard day on the fells.

The Rothay Manor revival is great news for anyone heading to Ambleside seeking excellent food and luxurious surroundings. They also do a second menu for those who don’t want fine dining on consecutive nights and I’m told they also concoct a mean afternoon tea.

So, did I ask for the dripping with my breakfast toast? Dear reader, I’m sorry to say I thought of my cholesterol levels and confined myself to bacon, sausage, eggs, black pudding….

Roger Borrell was a guest of Rothay Manor, Rothay Bridge, Ambleside. LA22 0EH. 015394 33605.

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