Talking to head chef Chris O’Callaghan after a busy evening service, I was impressed by his energy, passion and sense of purpose. He came to Linthwaite House in April, succeeding Richard Kearsley who had done much to maintain the hotel’s strong reputation for fine dining. With an impressive CV, including three years at Gravetye Manor and nine in the Alan Murchison stable of restaurants – L’Ortolan, Le Becasse, The New Angel, and most recently, Paris House, Chris was keen to add his own stamp to Linthwaite’s kitchens.
Overseeing a brigade of 9, with a minimum of five in the kitchen at any time, he describes his management style as relaxed and “even,” with no shouting, treating each member of his team as individuals. All are involved in the final development of a dish. Presently, he is collaborating with the pastry chef on a special cherry parfait.
Chris claims it is too early to define his style precisely or how it will evolve. However, he is passionate about using seasonal British ingredients. For instance, he will not use Parmesan, preferring Doddingtons cheese even though it is more expensive. Therefore, building good relationships with top regional suppliers like Lake Speciality Foods is important. Whilst he accepts foraged ingredients can be useful, they must not occupy too much of a kitchen’s time. As with most young, ambitious chefs, he has embraced modern techniques including molecular ones to maintain consistency and expand the scope of his cookery.
Whilst his personal aim is to gain a Michelin star and three AA rosettes, he accepts that pleasing his customers is paramount. He cooks for them, not for the guides, as it should be.
Having enjoyed an impressive lunch shortly after Chris arrived at Linthwaite, I was keen to return to see how his cooking had developed. I was not to be disappointed. Chris’s cooking shows great skill in its range, timing, ingredient combination and presentation. Dishes are well balanced in terms of tastes, textures and temperatures. Based on classical roots, there is a degree of restrained invention that produces elegant, sophisticated dishes.
The dinner menu offers a choice of five starters, mains and desserts. Two dishes change daily, affording a greater choice to residents, most of whom dine for more than one night. There is no tasting menu which is not necessarily a disadvantage because more time can be spent refining the carte. Menu descriptions, although detailed, are still understated, offering nice surprises to the diner.
Dinner began with canapés of smoked salmon twirls; cheese and ham straws and honey roasted cashews and peanuts. Simple and delicious, they rightly did not steal the thunder from what was to come
Well made breads – cheese and paprika and granary with oats – had crisp crusts and firm crumb.
An amuse bouche of mushroom veloute was enhanced by a well judged addition of truffle oil.
A tart of cured pigeon retained the soft texture and gamey flavour of the bird. Sandwiched between the slices of breast and the crisp pastry base was red onion marmalade of with a perfect combination of sweet and sour. Whilst the raspberries might initially appear a superfluous garnish, the need to balance the rich oiliness of the pumpkin seeds with an acidic element justified their addition to what was overall a highly accomplished starter.
Another first course featured soft shelled crab deep fried in a ethereally light tempura batter and partnered with a quennel of sweet dressed crab, gently spiked with chilli. Delicately flavoured lemon grass jelly and a spaghetti and puree of butternut squash were brilliantly conceived and well executed garnishes. Visually, also, this dish was stunning.
Two contrasting main courses were sampled. The first, a veal “cushion” or rump was cooked medium to maximise its tender, sweet qualities. This was coupled with unctuous slow cooked shin which simply melted in the mouth. Cep tortellini and puree gave a deep earthiness whilst charred onion, roasted carrot and cauliflower gave a caramelised flavour and crisp texture. A red wine reduction, given added richness by nuggets of bone marrow and a slight aniseed note of tarragon, bought the elements together in a harmonious whole. This was not a dish for the feint hearted given its generous portion size and robust flavours, but one that was exemplary in its mastery of meat and sauce cookery.
Lighter and more delicate but no less accomplished was a dish of poached sea bream fillets, rolled to present their attractive glistening grey skins. Perched on a bed of braised pak choi, bean sprouts and strips of red pepper, all al dente, they were surrounded by a fragrant, clear Thai consommé seasoned with tiny dried shrimps.
Desserts offered greater scope for creativity and use of molecular techniques which were exhibited to the full.
Chocolate tart had buttery pastry and a rich ganache. This was moderated by a paste of salted grue de cacao, giving good balance to the chocolate elements. A velvety smooth and not over powerful mint ice cream added a refreshingly light note whilst shards and cigarettes of meringue gave crisp texture and contrasting colour.
Another dessert featured poached meringue flavoured with vanilla, lemon crumble, strawberry compote and an exemplary strawberry sorbet. This was a happy marriage of flavours and textures that again showed the undoubted skills of the pastry section.
The dinner ended with coffee and truffles and passion fruit jellies, made with the same care and attention to detail given to what preceded them. Overall, this was a distinguished meal, with only one minor hiccup and many high points. Chris has lost no time in establishing himself as a rising star in the Lake District, certainly one with Michelin star potential. We shall all watch his career with interest.