In 2013 we spent time with good friends in Yorkshire and had an opportunity to eat at several excellent restaurants. Here are restaurant reviews for these wonderful eateries.
The Black Swan
Telephone: 01347 868387
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Rostra rating: 4
It ain’t your grandma’s pub grub. The Black Swan is more of an elegant restaurant with very nice rooms than a Yorkshire pub cum B&B, but it is indicative of a rural gastro trend throughout the UK. Ever since the British imported the Wal-Mart model to the mother country, pubs have been in trouble. What is the Wal-Mart model? It’s all about loss leaders; get the masses into the store to buy something at or below cost and then make your numbers on impulse buys. Well what better loss leader in Old Blimey than beer? And that spells trouble for pubs, which are also being bought up by real estate agents and then repurposed into condos.
One avenue of differentiation is to serve good beer vice whatever ersatz suds are on sale at the local Tesco, but that has not proven to be enough. Unless one wants to sell one’s soul to a major brewer and flog only their mediocre product, the key to survival for an endangered free house is good food, exceptional food is even better. So while the absolute number of British pubs is in decline, the gastro pub is ascendant. It is literally getting harder and harder to find a bad meal at an English country pub.
The Black Swan is the apotheosis of the gastro pub, boasting a Michelin star as well as three AA rosettes for their restaurant accompanied by five AA stars and a Breakfast Award for their hotel. Our dinner at this establishment tied with the Lanercost B&B for best meal of the UK leg of the trip. These are two very different establishments, but each is excellent in its own way.
The Black Swan is nestled in a national park in Yorkshire near the village of Oldstead between Kilburn and Byland. The restaurant and pub are housed in a slate roofed stonewalled structure that simply reeks of British country life. Diners are first ushered into the downstairs pub, replete with flag stone floors and a large fireplace. Here one peruses the menus and wine list before being seated upstairs in the wood-floored and Persian rug bedecked dining room. I found myself reluctant to depart the pub not only because it struck me as a most congenial space, but its cool recesses also offered far more relief than the upstairs venue from the unyielding heat wave that held the UK in its muggy embrace for the three weeks we spent there.
Furnishings in the restaurant were all suitable Michelin one star level: Riedel crystal, Villeroy and Boch china, and Elia flatware. The service was formal and correct without being aloof. The wait staff were not merely knowledgeable but expert when it came to the ingredients and techniques employed in each dish.
This article reviews the seven course tasting menu, which began with two amuse bouche. A spoonful of solid vichyssoise with lightly smoked mackerel beaten into it constituted a leeky tater smoothie with hints of fish and smoke.
This was followed by a cold yellow tomato consume, a salty sweet tomato-infused liquid that was delicious on a hot evening.
Next up was a mackerel tartar with beetroot terrine and butterfly sorrel: great flavor, the fish was impregnated with a bit of vinegar and creamy mayonnaise. The beetroot terrine was a strip composed of quarter inch squares of beet aspic alternating with squares of fresh sweet beets. There was also a refreshing touch of wine and acid in the aspic.
Asparagus, crispy quail egg, and goat milk puree followed. The foundation of this dish consisted of perfectly cooked baby asparagus served at room temperature. The quail egg was deep fried just long enough to impart a very thin crust and slightly set the yolk, really good. Lightly pickled radishes served as flavor IEDs hidden in the goat milk puree for textural contrast.
I named the next dish Mr. Creosote’s last bite. It comprised foie gras with cherry aspic, spiced bread wafer, cherry, and pistachios. The kitchen most manifestly did not skimp on the pate. It felt like livery silk on the tongue, triggering a serious foodgasm boosted by the pitted bing cherry that had been stewed in red wine and stock. The crunchy sweet thin wafer was not bad either, nor did the staff feel compelled to administer it Monty Python-style (though I would have liked that, it would definitely not have gone over very well with our British dinner companions).
I had so much fun naming the preceding course that I felt compelled to continue in the same vein for scallops with potato wafer, sea vegetables, and seaweed foam that I dubbed Scallops Addephagia after the ancient Sicilian goddess of gluttony. The waferage at this place just did not quit. The taters were a nano-version of Pommes Anna.
The effect was that of brittle butter and it was spectacular when paired with the perfectly cooked scallops. A second layer of flavor and texture came from the sea veggies and foam. A one eighth inch dice of Kohlrabi cubes that were nestled in the foam supplied a final flavor dimension. I am not a big fan of foam sauces, but this really worked and integrated the whole dish. If Addephagia had been born from the sea a la Aphrodite, just this type of foam would have clung to her corpulent girth.
Loin of lamb with shallot puree, artichokes with fennel, potatoes, and tomato with basil proved too seriously delicious for etymological embellishment. The lamb was cooked perfect medium rare edging towards rare in the exact center of the cut, but the shallot puree was the show stealer, decadently rich and sweet.
The potatoes and artichokes were very nice, but the tomato supplied a great counterpoint to the shallot puree. It had been blanched, the skin removed, and then infused with basil olive oil—a splendid Mediterranean contrast to the classic old school French shallot preparation.
The first of two desserts was hyssop ice cream with strawberry consume and meringue that supplied a wonderful smooth/crunchy contrast.
This very nice effort, however, was completely eclipsed by peach roasted in schnapps with crème fresh ice cream. It was peachtacular, with the bite of the schnapps mellowed but not extinguished by the creamy, slightly tart ice cream. This is the same dessert we had at Lanercost Priory, and while Cristina’s approach was more rustic and less nuanced, it was still the better of the two because she simply put a sugared peach along with a split vanilla bean in an aga and let the heat do its thing. A classic illustration of the enduring superiority of ingredient-driven versus technique-driven cuisine (sorry Michelin, sorry AA, but it’s the truth and that’s how we roll at MagoGuide).
The bread at The Balck Swan was worthy of the food. We were served excellent white and brown herb rolls accompanied by lightly salted fresh local butter.
The tasting menu has a wine pairing option, but I had plenty of time to get to know the wine list in the downstairs pub (no doubt part of the plan), so I took on the job of pairing. Our wines in order of appearance were:
- Nyetimber Classic Cuvee, 2008: my first encounter with British sparkling wine. It was surprisingly good with refreshing notes of medlar, tropical fruit, hints of mango, and a long crisp finish with lots of citrus peel.
- Chablis, Billaud Simon, 2011: lots of flint and wet stone with a mineral finish.
- Valpolicella Ripassa, Zenato, 2009: wonderful grape candy with a berry/cherry nose and cherry licorice mid-palate ending in a medium length earthy finish.
- Gevrey-Chambertin, Christian Serafin, 2008: cherries and earth on the nose, black fruit and leather on the mid-palate and a long finish with plenty of cow poop (that would be terroir for you wine snobs).
The Fairfax Arms
Telephone: 01439 788212
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Rostra rating: 3
We stayed at this pub for four nights and found it very congenial. Our upstairs room was above the kitchen, which contributed to the heat, but open windows and a fan made it OK for sleeping at night. The room was large and the bed very nice. The shower was great, a large walk-in with a rain-type showerhead. Our room had its own dedicated Wi-Fi system and it rocked. There was also a music system with an iPod/Phone dock.The staff was nice and very helpful. The pub has eleven ensuite rooms and is rated four stars by AA. There was a decent, but not great, selection of beers. Only two local real ales were available and when the bitter ran out one was left with either Tetley’s, which I burned out on in 1976, or lagers of which they had many. Since it continued scorching by British standards this was no bad thing. The wine by the glass was good and the pours quite generous.
We were in Yorkshire visiting friends, but found ourselves at loose ends when they bailed on us for family-related issues (there may have been small children involved). In a gesture of exquisite politeness, however, they bestowed on us a couple bottles of very decent wine to soften the blow. We betook ourselves downstairs and outside by a small brook that flows in front of the pub and ordered food to go with our gifts, which we enjoyed for the very reasonable corkage fee of five pounds per bottle.
Things began with a Mediterranean accent as olives and bread were brought to the table. The bread was fine, but the olives were especially good. My starter was pigeon breast with game chips, jus, and balsamic reduction. The pigeon was cooked rare and the wonderful dense dark meat had a delicious slightly gamey taste. Bespoke game chips were fantastic, thick, and dark brown in color. Everything was a bit under-salted, however. Patti’s crispy duck salad was quite good. The shredded duck breast had a nice smoky flavor and a welcome toothy texture accompanied by an interesting balsamic vinegar and sesame seed oil dressing.
Patti’s main was sirloin steak with onion rings and chips. She ordered her steak medium rare and technically it was, just. We have found it best to order steak rare in Britain if you have any sanguinary leanings. The onion rings were even better than those at Battlesteads Inn. I have decided that the Brits do onion rings better than the most places in the US. The chips were not bad, while the large mushroom caps were nicely grilled.
I opted for a lamb duo of braised shoulder and loin in cognac sauce. The braised shoulder was quite good. The braising pan lid had been taken off for the last half hour of cooking and the surface of the shoulder basted to produce a wonderful crusty outside to contrast with the meltingly soft interior. A fantastic sauce of reduced braising liquid accompanied the shoulder. The loin was slightly overcooked, it could have been a touch pinker, but the sauce was very well executed—a nice balance of cognac and cream deglazed with the pan juices. The sides were a mixed bag, the broccoli and carrots were over-cooked and the miniature ears of corn tough and just plain weird, but the haricot vert and the mustard seed mashed potatoes were quite good.
And what about that wine? I thought you would never ask. We started with a 2000 Chateau Chas Spleen that had a nose of violets and damp earth, loads of jammy black fruit and Flathead cherries with a medium length finish. There was not much terroir and the tannins were very soft. Clearly at its peak, this Chas Spleen should be drunk up before it begins to slide down hill. Next up was a 2003 View Telegraph Châteauneuf-du-Pape that displayed a classic nose of peanuts, gobs of extracted red and black fruit, and a long sweet finish. Once again this wine is drinking well but does not possess much more aging potential.
What happened to the food pictures for this delicious meal? Someone apparently forgot to tell the photographer that this meal was going to be reviewed (this might owe to several pre-dinner pints of a rather strong dark ale). What we do have are some nice photos of the breakfast served at The Fairfax Arms. Enjoy.
The Durham Ox Pub in Crayke
Telephone: 01347 821506
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Rostra rating: 4
Yorkshire seems to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to gastro pubs and the Durham Ox is a fine example. The three hundred year old award-winning pub sports the usual flagstone floors, fire place, and exposed beams, but it is the unusual oak paneling in the bar (copies of 14th Century pew ends from St. Michael’s Church in Brent Knoll, Somerset) that are sure to impress first time visitors. Should you over indulge in the Durham Ox’s extensive rotation of local real ales and/or perform too close an inventory of its small but varied wine list, there are five converted farm cottages and a studio suite located above the pub for overnight stays or a long post-prandial nap. Last but not least, the kitchen is equipped with Big Bertha, a one ton solid steel and cast iron charcoal fired oven, capable of achieving temperatures in the range of 750 degrees Fahrenheit.
We sampled the following dishes one night at the Durham Ox.
Beef Carpaccio: thick cut beef yielded more texture and flavor than the usual thin version, but it also needed salt.
Duck terrine: full of nice dark meat, but the duck gelatin needed a flavor boost.
Baked scallops: nicely done. Large scallops were loosened from their shells and then returned and gratineed with cheddar, Gruyère, and a dash of cream.
Pan fried sea bass with samphire and smashed new potatoes: a very nice dish. Boneless bass filets were perfectly cooked in butter with a bit of dill. They were served on top of the potatoes and samphire, which tastes like salty wild asparagus and paired superbly with the buttery taters. All of this rested on a quarter inch dice of lemon and tomato infused with evoo that imparted a nice acidity to the dish.
Pea and mint soup: an excellent summer soup containing intense pea flavor spiked with spearmint.
Here are some more photos from The Durham Ox: