Finding a restaurant for a meal with a large group of friends – which includes food-lovers like me, parents with young ones and some on a tighter budget – is quite a challenge. Especially when it has a lot to live up to, given the success of last year's meal at The Wild Garlic.
Leaving it till a week or two before a trip to the Lake District, in the school summer holidays, is just plain foolish!
So there was a lot of frantic web searching and phone calls on my part before, with huge relief, I found the friendly folks at Miller Howe, in Windermere.
Not only were they willing to offer us a set price menu for just £30 per adult (about £10 less than their usual dinner pricing) they also suggested setting up two large tables in a private corner of their large series of dining rooms, with direct access to the extensive gardens, so the kids could play outside. They asked just £10 per child, offering to adapt starters and desserts from the adult menu and asking parents in advance for suggestions on a suitable main course.
Service was friendly though somewhat confused with dishes consistently delivered to the wrong people. That said, the staff were friendly and didn't seem fazed by our noisy group.
We felt comfortable with our semi-private area; we didn't have to worry about disturbing other guests. And being able to let the kids burn off some of their boundless energy outside was definitely a blessing.
I chose the Cartmel Valley wood pigeon breast, parmesan risotto to start. The pigeon was served nicely pink and had a lovely gamey flavour. The risotto was rather stodgy and lacked the punch of enough parmesan.
The trio of Scottish salmon, seared, rilette and home cured was good. There was nothing outstanding here, but it was a decent selection, simply presented.
Probably the most impressive starter was the twice baked Cumberland farmhouse cheese soufflé, mixed cress and balsamic. Surprisingly light with a touch of crispness on the outside to offset the meltingly soft interior, it had a fantastic, full-on flavour that made me want to steal more than the bite I was generously given!
Quite a few of us plumped for the braised Cumbrian feather beef, herb suet dumpling, root vegetables and red wine jus. The beef itself was delicious, though I hadn't expected it to have been flaked into pieces and then re-assembled into a large cylinder. The flavours were lovely, and continued through into the gravy though I think all of us wanted more gravy – it looks generous in the photos but really didn't go far. The root vegetables went nicely with it, though made the dish feel really out of season, even with the drizzly weather we experienced for most of our week in the Lakes. The suet dumpling was the most disappointing aspect – it was far too solid and rather unpleasant. Overall, the dish went down well but there were quite a few comments that the proportion of meat to vegetables was far too high.
The pan roast wild sea trout, wilted baby gem lettuce, peas, pancetta and baby onions was only ordered by one person on our table and I think he made the wisest choice. This dish really was excellent – the trout was beautifully cooked, moist and full of flavour; the peas and lettuce were refreshing and summery, the pancetta gave a nice punch of flavour without overwhelming the fish and the mashed potato was creamy and rich.
The third main on offer was Goosnargh corn fed chicken breast, buttered spinach, wild mushrooms, madeira sauce. I seldom order chicken but I'd have been happy with this. Simple but, again, well cooked with good flavours in the meat and sauce and a generous serving of wild mushrooms.
All three desserts proved popular.
The sticky toffee pudding, toffee sauce, vanilla ice-cream was satisfactory but not outstanding, it was rich and gooey with a decent flavour.
The English raspberry, apple and almond crumble, traditional vanilla custard was served in individual lidded cast iron pots with custard and cream on the side. I didn't taste any but it seemed to disappear pretty fast and was pronounced delicious!
Sadly, the waiter was completely unable to answer our questions about what a financier might be – in fact, rather than checking, he gave us a completely inaccurate description; no answer would have been better.
Luckily, I think those who ordered the milk chocolate financier, berry sorbet, cocoa reduction generally enjoyed the alternating layers of berry and moist rich chocolate cake. That said, the cocoa reduction was aptly described as "skid-mark minimalism" and hardly fair to include in the description as an element of the dish. The kids adored the flower-decorated chocolate discs on top!
There were a couple of local ales available on tap and a decent wine list. And they were happy to serve tap water in jugs to our table, rather than insisting we paid for bottled.
There were some criticisms about the children's meals – despite being told that the kids would receive simplified and smaller portions of adult starters, they were given full adult dishes – generous, yes, but too large and fussy. The bowl of fresh fruit one of the girls chose instead was good but again, oversized and consequently a bit overwhelming. The biggest disappointment was the tomato pasta served to some of the children – it "just seemed to have a can of chopped tomatoes as the sauce rather than a proper tomato sauce" which was lazy and a bit of a poor show against the rest of the menu, given that it was discussed and ordered in advance.
Even with the discount, some felt that the adult meal was not great value – I think this depended on what was ordered, as others seemed much happier with the price. Conversely, with the exception of the pasta, the kids menu seemed underpriced.
Overall, it was a good evening out and what made the experience particularly enjoyable for me was the flexibility and enthusiasm of the management team when planning and booking the meal, and the relaxed atmosphere on the day.