‘Some­where to save your love life’

The Guardian - Feast - - Front Page - Grace Dent

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.

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