TRAVEL - Rayner-rated hotel in ideal spot to explore the Lakes

Grasmere in winter
Grasmere in winter

Nothing quite beats the winter blues like escaping them, as RUBY KITCHEN discovers on a weekend trip to the village of Grasmere in the South Lakes.

Nestled in a valley at the foot of some of the Lakes’ most formidable fells, the picturesque village of Grasmere offers the perfect grey slate retreat.

Just a dusting of early morning frost takes this Lakes’ scene straight from a Grimm’s fairy tale, ice capped peaks surrounding a picture perfect gingerbread village.

Quaint, captivating and utterly charming, Grasmere is perfectly situated for exploring the wider southern lakes - or waters - of Windermere and Coniston. And while Grasmere has a growing a reputation on the tourist trail, and can be bustling in summer with keen fell walkers, it’s this time of year that’s best for a visit. Crystal waters, icy air, a glut of gift shops and tea rooms, yet without the bustle that accompanies some of the bigger towns of nearby Ambleside and Hawkshead.

The Lakes must surely house one of the best selections of quality accommodation in the north of England, with an array of luxury and boutique hotels to rival some good sized cities. But what sets the 14-room characterful Oak Bank Hotel in Grasmere that bit apart is the services of a passionate chef.

Darren Comish, enthusiastically reviewed by Jay Rayner a year ago, fought his way through to the Masterchef finals in December and is still now only just becoming discovered in the wider world.

He may have lost his footing in the final round but, with a meticulous dedication to detail, this hugely talented young chef will go far.

His attentive style became immediately apparent in our visit to the Oak Bank’s Dining Room, £38 for three courses.

To start; a quail ravioli in a delicate consomme, and a teriyaki mackerel with avocado relish and a cashew crumble. Everything on the plate, light and creamy versus crisp and sweet, was picked in perfect balance. My partner’s main, a saddle of local red deer, rich and tender, was well matched with ossu bucco, autumn vegetables and a juniper jus. When faced with the inventive menu, I had gone for what looked like the simple option - a selection of rare breed pork.

This now signature dish, such a favourite with the Guardian’s critic, came with meaty expectations and did not disappoint. But this was not a simple option. Delicate, distinctive and meticulously prepared, every new inch of the dish housed a dollop of something delicious to complement the next carefully crafted forkful. It’s immediately clear that an enormous amount of thought has gone into this course, as perfectly tender pieces of pork, cheek, belly, and liver sit aside creamed potatoes, a scoop of savoy cabbage, apples, onions, crackling and a xeres jus.

Then the desserts arrive. First, a wonderfully tangy pina colada pineapple cheesecake with coconut sorbet and a pineapple souffle. And then the world’s prettiest pudding; an apple and vanilla patisserie mille feuille served with salty caramel popcorn, sharp apple sorbet and the most perfectly miniature toffee apple. It seems a shame to break it, but it’s delicious when I do.

With such a surprise talent hidden within, the Oak Bank Hotel has much to offer. And with rooms starting at £86, it’s not too splashy either.

WHERE TO STAY The Oak Bank Hotel, Grasmere - www.lakedistricthotel.co.uk.

WHERE TO GO Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, former home of William Wordsworth - www.wordsworth.org.uk. Grasmere Gingerbread - Perhaps the world’s most famous gingerbread, still baked in the tiny little cottage where the story began in 1854. Heaton Cooper Studio - featuring the work of painter Alfred Heaton Cooper along with artist son William Heaton Cooper - www.heatoncooper.co.uk. Enjoy a cruise on Lake Windermere - www.windermere-lakecruises.co.uk.

TO FIND OUT MORE visit www.golakes.co.uk.