Ruth Allan heads north for some Cumbrian fare worth its Star

BASED in William Wordsworth’s former offices in Ambleside, local lad Ryan Blackburn doesn’t make as much noise as some of the other chefs in the area – which is perhaps why his Old Stamp House restaurant hasn’t been high on my list until now. The website doesn’t mention the fact that he won a Michelin Star in October 2019 (I would literally be shouting this at people in the street). Nor that he trained at other, famous Lakes kitchens, including Holbeck Ghyll and The Cottage In The Wood.

Despite a stated commitment to local produce, Blackburn isn’t scared to use alternative ingredients when nearby doesn't deliver

Instead, the blurb, mirrored in the menu, is all about local produce. Herdwick hogget, wild Cumbrian hare, gingerbread and forced Yorkshire rhubarb (Yorkshire’s not far). Drinks producers such as Kendal’s Zingi Bear get a look in too – and their bitter lemon-meets-ginger ‘switchel’ (£5.50) is zest in a bottle. But the real thrill is the price. Enjoy a two- or three-course lunch menu for £24.50 or £29.50 including all the bells and whistles that Michelin demands.

2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Exterior
"Food inspired by Cumbria" at the Old Stamp House

First impressions are fantastic. Mackerel pate is served in a crisp ‘tube’, with a sweet beetroot meringue kiss filled with horseradish on the side. Smooth yet bold flavour pairings span the menu; pickled redcurrant and hare, arctic char with spiced mead (both starters) and duck with crisp straws of salsify. I crunch curiously through mine, unable to place the oyster-ish tones.

2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Black Pudding And Beetroot Amuse Bouche 2
Finger food: black pudding and beetroot amuse bouche
2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Beetroot Horseradish Kiss
Pretty and pink: beetroot and horseradish kiss

Blackburn is brilliant at everything, but textural, often crisp details are a particular skill. The majestic cod (just look at the picture – I can’t believe this is a £19.50 main) comes topped with plump, gold and caramel-coloured mussels from Barrow or Whitehaven, and ‘coral’ branches, made from deep-fried kale. A bridal veil of spun sugar crowns the gingerbread-based cheesecake while the chocolate delice is topped with billowing malt sails. It’s like Blackburn can’t help but add the kind of detail Michelin inspectors love; yet they feel natural rather than fancy add-ons.

2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Arctic Char
Spiced mead-marinated arctic char
2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Wild Hare 2
Bold flavours of wild hare and pickled redcurrant

The only thing I don’t totally adore is his penchant for piping a thick sauce in a ring and then ‘filling in’ the circle with other stuff. This works most of the time (the aforementioned cod is exquisite, while earthy tones complement the flavour of the hare), but the presentation of the duck reminds me of the luminous orange drone my kids got for Christmas. It’s the only blip in an otherwise perfect meal.

2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Duck Breast 2
Island life, duck breast style
2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Cod Loin 2
Just look at the mussels on that cod loin

Despite a stated commitment to local produce, Blackburn isn’t scared to use alternative ingredients when nearby doesn't deliver - the passionfruit truffle served as a petit four (£3.50), for example. (We’re told the kitchen is working on fudge finished with lamb fat, but taste tests have proved a little gamey to date.)

The wine list, too, prioritises taste over an obsession with natural, French or whatever, and there are handy panels of info about house favourites: Austrian maker Judith Beck, for example (sample her robustly elegant Weissburgunder / Pinot Blanc, from £9.50), and the acclaimed South African Blank Bottle range which mentions no varietals in order to push flavour to the fore. A Moment Of Silence white is a bargain at £10 a glass.

2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Gingerbread Cheesecake
Gingerbread cheesecake with "bridal veil of spun sugar"
2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Chocolate Delice 2
The chocolate device is a delight

Blackburn’s 30-cover gem is located next to Greggs bakery. The contrast continues inside with soft wood tones, tables slightly worn in places, and local prints. In fact, the flagstone floor is the only indication that William Wordsworth conducted his postmaster and stamp distribution business here. The result? An experience that grandmothers and young kids are as likely to enjoy as Michelin star fans. I only wish I hadn’t left it so long.

Old Stamp House, Church Street, Ambleside, LA22 0BU

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2020 03 12 Old Stamp House Ambleside Receipt

The scores:

All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.

17/20
  • Food 9/10

    Mackerel 8, beetroot kiss 10, char 8, hare 8.5, cod 10, duck 9.8, gingerbread cheesecake 9.5, delice 8.5.

  • Service 4/5

    Buzzing with genuine enthusiasm.

  • Atmosphere 4/5

    Casual enough to make everyone feel at home.