Tuesday, 14 April 2015
The Black Swan at Oldstead, North Yorkshire
Whichever far-flung corner of the UK I happen to visit in pursuit of dinner, it seems I am cursed to immediately fall in love with the place and start planning an early retirement. First there was Cornwall, whose surreal beauty was backdrop to world-class restaurants such as Paul Ainsworth in Padstow, and where every inch of the county seemed to host some passionate producer or unique food story. Next came a trip to Devon and Somerset, which in the soft heat of late summer was like taking part in some glamorous Merchant Ivory production, only one with wifi and impeccably-kept cheese. And now the latest object of my obsession is the North York Moors.
It's a beautiful part of the country, but as you will have noticed following this blog over the years, there are many beautiful parts of the country. What took me by surprise in this particular spot (the very far South West of the North York Moors national park, near Coxwold and Byland Abbey) was just how alive and verdant it all seemed, even in very early spring. There was so much chattering and chirping wildlife following us around it was like rolling through a safari park - pheasants, partridges, hares, rabbits and stoats ducked around our feet (and, occasionally more worrying, the wheels of our car) while wood pigeons, herons and colourful finches played overhead. All of which conspired to make me very happy, but also very hungry - how many species would make their way onto that evening's menu? Plenty, I hoped.
Dinner began with a kale martini. This stood every chance of being pretty revolting, but was actually incredibly successful, just the right side of sweet and savoury with a flavour that was best described as "vegetal" than overly cabbagey. An incredible colour too; it looked and tasted like distilled Yorkshire spring.
First of the snacks, served in the cozy downstairs bar, was a cracker somehow made out of dried artichoke, topped with something creamy possibly also involving artichokes and then a little neat square of vinegary jelly. It's the kind of thing that's impossible not to love, and not just because I'd been looking forward to dinner so much I could have probably quite happily eaten a coaster.
Bright pink cubes of moist ox tongue, rested on blobs of mustard cream and delicate pressed linseed crackers. Sort of like a deconstructed salt beef sandwich. Salty and fatty and soft and crunchy and colourful.
This cute little fellow was a ball of smoked eel and pork, bread-crumbed and deep-fried like arancini, and served on a very interesting stone pedestal. While I remember in fact, all of the stunning Black Swan crockery is handmade just for the restaurant by a potter from York called Jane Schaffer, a lovely - and local - touch.
In more attractive handmade stoneware came duck broth, a gorgeously rich and satisfying thing, perhaps a tad overseasoned but still hugely enjoyable. That next to it is a sort of duck samosa with some shoots of new-growth chard straight out of the restaurant's kitchen garden.
Resettled upstairs in the main dining room - a low-ceilinged, ancient old space with stone-flagged floors and antique furniture; basically everything you want from a country pub restaurant - the mains began to arrive. First was a kind of spelt risotto, flavoured with lovage and trompette mushrooms, and topped with a couple of perfectly-poached quail's eggs. More of that great deep seasonal green colour as well, the kind you only get from the very healthiest and freshest vegetables. If you were desperate to pick fault you could possibly argue it was, like the duck broth, a bit salty, but not so much that it was a problem. Oh and the house bread, little sourdough buns, were great, and came with an astonishing velvetty goat's curd.
This vast scallop was apparently still happily sat at the bottom of the Scottish ocean in the early hours of that very morning. Their fish people rush them down to order in a van every day, and it really shows - I'd go so far as to say it's the best scallop I've ever had in my life. It was perfectly cooked of course, slightly transluscent inside and with a delicate golden crust, but this wasn't just a case of good technique; this was simply a stunning bit of seafood. With it was some bits of chopped squid and samphire and a clever big clear cracker thing apparently made out of samphire somehow, but really this was all about that scallop.
Local (of course) lamb, with some nasturtium leaves from the garden, and some cute little cylinders of browned white radish. The meat, it almost goes without saying, was treated faultlessly, and a light mint yoghurt sauce it rested on made the pink meat feel even more intensely gamey. As well as all that though, this dish was paired with a Portuguese red which was so memorable - all spicy and glossy and comforting - I'm going to type out exactly what it says on my printed menu here so you can search it out yourself - "Meandro do Vale Meao, Quinta do Vale Mea 2010".
The vegetarian main course option is worth a mention too - some locally-foraged wild mushrooms including Hen of the Woods, which tastes so like chicken I wonder if you'd ever miss the real thing if you were lucky enough to have access to such things on a regular basis.
"Lolipops" the next course was called, for obvious reasons. The genius in this course was how the flavours gradually transitioned from savoury (cep mushroom and white chocolate) on the right, via fennel root and elderberry in the middle to sweet (rosemary and apple on the left), bridging the gap between main courses and dessert. This is a kitchen in supreme command of the experience it is giving to diners.
The dessert itself, a geometrically-exact cylinder of lemon and sheep's milk ice cream topped with pine sorbet, was a mini work of art and a revelatory combination of flavours at once. And if that wasn't enough, the Black Swan went all Fat Duck on us, with a pine-scented cloud of CO2 being spectacularly unleashed from a contraption in the middle of the table. Matched with the food was a Douglas Fir Sour, almost more impressive than the dessert itself, rejuvenating and soothing with its cream/sour balance.
Petits fours (petit fours? petits four? Excuse my French) rounded things off nicely - those chocolate blocks are salted caramel truffles.
The Black Swan is, as I hope I've made pretty clear, a near-faultless restaurant that could hold its head high in any company, with service and style that would turn heads no matter where it set up shop. But a fundamental part of its success is that, just like Simon Rogan's l'Enclume in Cumbria, or Stephen Harris' Sportsman in Kent, instead of looking abroad, making the most of what they can get their hands of and ending up with that bland foie-gras-and-beef-fillet international geographically-vague type of fine dining, the menu is designed (odd element of seafood aside) precisely around what this tiny corner of the North York Moors is best at, and they've set themselves the task of getting better and better at serving that. And so what you end up with is not only a bloody good dinner but something unmistakeably of Yorkshire, that could literally exist nowhere else in the world.
It was as we traipsed through a nearby wood earlier that afternoon to work up an appetite, passing through narrow green lanes heady with wild garlic and being bleated at by new-born lambs in rolling blustery fields, that I began to wonder whether this isn't just the future of high-end gastronomy but all food; not in some hippy food-miles save-the-planet way but just for the straightforward delight in knowing exactly why your dinner exists and the sheer smug pleasure in knowing you're making the most of it. And after a meal at the Black Swan that evening, I was almost convinced - in this most remote part of England, where mobile phones are useless and taxis cost £40/mile, I've never felt the distance between production and consumption be so tantalisingly - and wonderfully - short.
In the hopefully not-too-distant future I may be able to share with you a Where to Eat Yorkshire app. Meantime, if you're in London, why not use Where to Eat London to pick a dinner spot? Guaranteed only the very best restaurants in London.