As Burt Bacharach famously sang, “what do you get when you fall in love?”. He observed cupid’s inevitably misguided arrow and the prevailing law of sod. With hints of schadenfreude, how could I have felt surprised that a high-end dining experience (in this case, The Yorke Arms) would deny me an à la carte meal and have me sat for a long tasting menu of small plates over which I had no choice.
It might seem churlish or hypocritical of me to berate tasting menus when the number one eatery on my 2020 to-do list is L’Enclume. But, really, sometimes a person just needs a square meal. One mid-sized starter then a proper plate of food – all ordered according to personal whim.
There are, as you know, two ways to cook duck breast: perfectly and everything else
Imagine my disappointment when, having watched Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon eat à la carte at the Yorke Arms in the inspirational first series of The Trip (“I have evidence, m’lud!”), the waiting staff presented me with a tasting menu only. Hand on my heart, if someone had said: do you want a truck driver’s portion of Harry Ramsden’s haddock, fat chips and mushy peas, or near-Michelin level food, I’d have taken the fish supper.
With Raby Hunt the night before, Yorke Arms had a tough act to follow (note: while Raby disappointed in ambience, you cannot fault the explosion of flavours and intriguing nature of James Close’s food). On the night, it indeed proved too tough. This was a great pity as, venue-wise, Yorke Arms sets up as a beautiful spot at which to dine. The building – with its wonderful stone façade and period charm – sits in a small, idyllic hamlet. The principal lounge matches the external pleasure in being decorated to the highest standard and in keeping with the rural context of the estate. Roaring fires, stained panels and decadent soft furnishings await guests as they lift the proverbial latch prior to dining (or take coffee to conclude).
A strong feature is an ale pump at the bar. The Yorke Arms is meant to be a pub – and so it has a bar of sorts and a barperson, who can provide a frothing pint of local beer. Why then does the Yorke Arms not stay true to its alleged status? Consider The Inn at Whitewell – a bastion of country dining in Clitheroe, Lancs., and visited by Palate in 2017. The Inn does everything a hostelry should do (including a chalk board of dishes to consume in the main pub) while also offering finer dining, restaurant-style, without the need for a tasting menu. Yorke Arms should be more inn-like – with areas for ale supping over a newspaper while the drinker’s terrier sits patiently. There should be exquisite “big” grub, like pies and winter game, which, under chef Frances Atkins, would be inherently achievable and potentially delicious.
Back to the eating experience. Having been shown by penguin-suited waiters to the dining room, all was set up nicely, to include a table that was usefully wide – allowing wine bottles, a water carafe and other miscellany to deck the surrounding space without suffocation of the diner. One waiter was particularly friendly and it’s true to say the sommelier was both helpful and a non-fussy sort. Disappointingly, and almost certainly a factor in Yorke Arms’ loss of its Michelin star in 2019, is a door directly off the dining room that leads to the service route. Beyond the door is a bleach-white, ugly corridor that is floodlit as the Emirates stadium on match night. And it is the sole route from the kitchen to front of house. The result is the bathing of the otherwise comfortable dining room in unsympathetic, 100-watt bulb light every time a member of staff passes from the main room to hidden quarters (and back again). It was bizarre and seriously off-putting. The hideous corridor and incongruous lighting were carbuncle-level conspicuous and I’m pretty shocked the venue had done nothing at all to abate the effect.
Food came in the processional nature expected having elected the 8-course option on a hunger basis. You don’t have all day, as you read this over a coffee or on a work break, and frankly nor do I. I’ll therefore get to the point as I traverse the parade of courses brought to the table that night.
A seared tuna fillet with celeriac and pickled beetroot was tasty and a reasonable start to matters. The tuna was cooked rare and the knife passed through it like butter. While fair, I wouldn’t remember the dish but for a photo of the menu that I took on the night
A racier course followed in the form of hare dumpling, which was rich as hell and gamey – as it should be. I do like the gravy/ragu hybrid of minced rabbit meat and credit to the restaurant for achieving the texture and boldness of the dish. Another four helpings of that, washed down with the Rhone Syrah, would have been a joy.
A flexitarian’s plate of cooked vegetables (artichoke etc.) was forgettable and just okay. I thought briefly of Raby Hunt’s exquisite salad of garden herbs and there was simply no comparison.
Bearing in mind the Door of Doom and the just-above-average quality of the meal, the price is somewhat dear
A return to form arrived in the form of monkfish and lobster – salty, buttery with tastes of the sea. The red-striped lobster meat had been cooked sympathetically; free from errors. This was probably the dish of the night.
Ah, the duck course. Quite a helping, to be fair to the restaurant and an outlier in that respect. However: there are, as you know, two ways to cook duck breast: perfectly and everything else. The breast slice was just towards rubbery and for that I must find fault. We are not talking an outrageous disaster – simply a quality level that did not befit the supposed calibre of the restaurant.
A truffle dessert was wasted on me as I find truffle overbearing. However, a finale of chocolate this-and-that was very good indeed and would have pleased anyone with a sweet tooth. As far as chocolate can be delightful, it was. Not memorable as such but a solid rounding off to the meal.
At £105 for the above, did the tasting menu represent value? Not quite. Of course, the diner is paying for the building, the room, the staff, the celebrity chef and the food – but still it’s costly. Bearing in mind the Door of Doom and the just-above-average quality of the meal, the price is somewhat dear. Add wine (happily low on mark-up) and some coffees and the bill of costs ramps up. I suspect the restaurant mainly caters to the well-heeled locals in Ripon and Harrogate.
If I had been a Michelin inspector, I too would have taken away the star. What galls the most, as a rural-loving Brit, is the Yorke Arms’ betrayal of its essence. The obvious fix here is to make it a countryside coach house again. Old pubs can absolutely be high-end (look at The Sportsman in Seasalter for clear evidence) and in possession of accolades while keeping their sincerity and simplicity.
For me, Yorke Arms is missing a trick. I want to tell Frances Atkins because I really care. The venue is trying to be two things but does each insufficiently well. I would only visit for coffee in the beautiful lounge and to gander at the exterior. And, if you live many hundreds of miles away, would those features be an adequate draw? I doubt it.
by Cristian Ley