‘Somewhere to save your love life’
The first fact you need to know about Lounge on the Green at Houghton, on the outskirts of Carlisle, is that it is very much in England. It’s a full eight miles from the “Welcome to Scotland” sign. “So, you’re being petty,” you may be thinking. “It’s basically a Scottish restaurant near Gretna Green, right?” To which I say, “You fundamentally misunderstand Border people.”
Carlisle is fiercely English. And no, this is not petty at all. We are still in deep umbrage with Gretna over Malcolm III’s invasion in 1061. Meanwhile, Gretna is still livid over multiple historical slights, not least of which is a period circa 1982 when Russ Abbot’s CU Jimmy character led to coachloads of English tourists at Gretna Services, bleating unintelligible faux-Scots and wearing ginger wigs attached to tartan bonnets.
Another thing about the incredibly English Lounge on the Green, is that it recently won “best newcomer restaurant” at the glitzy Carlisle Living Awards. Fancy PR agency-led campaigns to lure punters are rare in Cumbria; most restaurants here live or die by word of mouth. I’d heard the buzz about Lounge on the Green and its chef, James Hill, via several
sources. This is a former furniture shop, in a sedate village, just off junction 44 of the M6, that now serves delicate joys such as tuna carpaccio on herb-crusted poached quail’s egg and ham hock terrine on celeriac puree.
The Lounge is a tiny bit fancy, a birthday treat kind of place, or somewhere to salvage your love life over three courses for just short of £30. The food is experimental – in that it may be the first time some locals have seen pork cooked in pedro ximénez sherry – but not unapproachably so. Hill’s style is unpretentious but definitely forward-reaching, which is something that can be a little scarce throughout Cumbria.
I quibble frequently that my native county suffers slightly from having little middle ground between chips and burger pub grub and the giant leap to foraged and tweezered Michelin-star tasting menus in pricey country house hotels set in corners of the Lakes that the GPS refuses to acknowledge. (That said, I must give honourable mention to the much-admired Pentonbridge Inn around 13 miles up the road.)
So, yes, a lofty, well-travelled visitor to Lounge on the Green might sigh at a menu of scallops, braised brisket or pan-roasted chicken breast, but as a Carlisle woman on a quick home visit, it makes my heart sing to walk into a place like the Lounge on a wet Thursday night in October to find an entire table of laughing ladies of a mature vintage eating pork fillet steeped in PX with black pudding bonbons, served on crushed squash.
Hill, I feel, has a good, honest grip on all the basics that make a restaurant a pleasure. He has found chipper, attentive front-ofhouse staff who look genuinely delighted to see you. He’s bought comfy chairs with deep cushions that one can linger on and, more crucially, that his staff will allow you to linger on. And, perhaps even more crucially, he has a good sense for seasoning, and plates all this up in a generous, hearty way that still holds some finesse.
My crowd rampaged through the menu, loving especially the excellent, rich, soft braised brisket on a pleasing cauliflower risotto with horseradish shoots. The Lakeland beef rump was perhaps the menu’s most robust dish, appearing like a glorious challenge, topped with haggis-stuffed potatoes, a pile of onion rings and red wine gravy. A well-judged fillet of sea bass with buttered lobster arrived with saffron potatoes on orange and dill root veg.
As with the best impromptu dinners that turn into great memories, the thing my lot have kept talking about is the puddings. A just-sweet-enough, gorgeously presented blackberry creme brulee came with the nuttiest, most delicious pistachio ice-cream
I think I’ve ever tasted. A feisty, dark chocolate mousse was flecked with raspberry “textures”. The sticky toffee pudding was a plentiful wodge that will firmly glue the trap of any family member who may have whined that the fayre was too fiddly.
In a small commuter village, just north of Carlisle – OK, practically Scotland, if we’re being honest
– Hill is cajoling the locals to eat “textures”. This is why, I think, they’re calling him best newcomer. It’s a title with which I agree.