Saturday 13 August 2016

Mrs Miller's, Culgaith, near Penrith

At the end of July 2016, the Good Food Guide announced the winners of its Regional Restaurants of the Year competition.  The overall, national, winner was Wine & Brine in Moira, County Armagh, but what - of course - caught my attention was the Guide's North West Restaurant of the Year, was Mrs Miller's at Culgaith..

My immediate reaction was Mrs Who at Where? In this connected age of social media and such like, I like to think I keep up with much of what's going on in the restaurant scene, at least in the north west. I'd never heard of Culgaith, let alone Mrs Miller's.  Checking on Twitter, nobody else seemed to have heard of it either.

Culgaith is a small village in the Eden Valley, and a former station on the Settle to Carlisle railway line, near Temple Sowerby.  If that means nothing to you, it's about 7 miles east of Junction 40, the Penrith junction of the M6.

Mrs Miller's is part of the Hazel Dene Garden Centre, so yes, it's a garden centre café. I admit to approaching Mrs Miller's with a hint of trepidation. Had the Good Food Guide somehow been rigged, I wondered.  But there was still hope in my heart. After all, many garden centres have upped their food offer in recent years, and there was always Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries in London, which gained a Michelin star before she moved on to Somerset House on the Strand.

The entrance through the garden centre car park doesn't make the most prepossessing first impression when you pull into the car park.  Nice selection of plants though, all good quality stuff. Really good selection of edible plants too, including some apple trees impressively weighed down by fruit.  It also clearly serves as the village shop. The only thing it seemed to be missing is a post office counter. 

Nice apples - hope they don't go to waste and there's apple pie on the menu later in the year

When you've made your way through the garden centre, it looks like you might be eating in a polytunnel, but thankfully this is only housing some vegetable beds, and a ramp and steps up to a brick building which houses Mrs Millers. It's presumably an old railway building, given it is so hard up against the tracks, although I think the station building is on the other side of the tracks, where you can still see the remains of the platform, so maybe this was the old goods shed?

Possibly the most unassuming street presence for a restaurant ever?

Presumably to supply the kitchen?
Once inside, it's comfortable, relaxed and not too garden-centre-café-like. Some proper chairs and tables, a deep leather sofa in front of a fireplace, some more conservatory style chairs on other tables, including in the little annexe where I sat, as it got the most natural light.

There seem to be several menus throughout the day, with some overlap, some of which do offer what you might think of as more garden centre café fare. The lunch menu, however, reassures any doubts that may still linger about how a garden centre café could be the Good Food Guide's North West Restaurant of the Year.

It's brief; commendably brief. Two starters and six mains, with the dearest main being £10. Yes, £10.  And look at the bottom of the menu: you could get a two course lunch for £7. Which is frankly remarkable. How do they make money on that?  (A nearby table had that: the ham, egg and chips was a plateful and looked jolly good, as did the suissesse-style soufflé and sea bass dish.)

Despite it being a cold, damp August day and the soup sounding a great option, I started with the smoked salmon, scampi and prawn starter.  Remarkably generous for a fiver (it was bigger than it looks in the photograph below), with good smoked salmon (Brougham Hall is a local wholesaler, I believe), a pair of crisp, lightly battered scampi and some prawns lightly bound in a good marie rose. Nice bread that they make themselves too. Not too sure about the hefty branch of parsley on top.

Choosing a main course was very difficult.  The lure of testing chips in a new place won though.  An excellent flat iron steak that was both extremely tender and had good flavour.
Having chips and salad both in pots, sat on the plate, in the sauce, was a bit annoying, but I understand why they need to do it: otherwise people would complain the chips got soggy in the sauce, and the salad warmed up and the dressing mixed with sauce.  I liked the addition of a few bits of stilton in the salad, which seemed a bit of an inspired idea.  The chips were excellent.
The meat was cooked rather more medium than I'd have liked, and I'd have preferred more of a sear on the outside.  And if I'm being really, really picky, the sauce was a teeny bit thin, if otherwise nicely made.  But it was all better than many other places, and who on earth could complain when it's only a tenner?

Desserts are more cake counter than desserts.

Blackcurrant meringue tart was like a lemon meringue tart, but with blackcurrants replacing the lemon. I really liked this, and thought it worked well. Very thin pastry: the blackcurrant had seeped into it on the bottom, but the edge was still crisp.

Service was very good: friendly, efficient and knowledgeable, and overall, I was very impressed.  I'd gone with low expectations, and while there are quite a few good garden centre cafés around these days and these parts, Mrs Miller's is clearly a notch above. 

It is a garden centre café, but it's much more than you might understand a garden centre café to be.  It felt to me a bit like a pop-up restaurant that was doing a brief stint in the space.  The main downside seems to be only that it's around a 90 minute drive away from me.

Oh, and the other downside is this:
First time I'd come across Fentiman's Lemon Shandy, and very nice it was too. But why is it served in a kilner jar? Not nice to drink out of. Stop it.

I'm pleased to say that on a subsequent visit, the Lemon Shandy came in a proper glass. Big tick!

I deduce from Mrs Miller's Facebook page that they are under the same ownership as a restaurant in Penrith, Four and Twenty, which appears to have the same bargain prices. Definitely one to put on my list.

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