My expectations of The Angel at Hetton were extremely high already. In 2018, Michael Wignall and his wife Johanna took the reins of this hallowed gastropub (though it’s really a restaurant now). I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying Wignall’s cooking during his tenure at Gidleigh Park (earning the restaurant two Michelin stars), a brief residency at The Game Bird and his lockdown home kits earlier this year. Add to this The Angel’s recent listing as the UK’s second best restaurant in the National Restaurant Awards, and a comprehensive refurbishment, I feared I was setting myself up for disappointment.
There were initial hurdles too, only heightening the excitement. The first challenge was getting a table. The next was driving there: after a somewhat hairy meander through narrow Postman Pat village lanes, it was a relief to arrive in Hetton in one piece. On entering, the new Scandi minimalist design and a warm welcome from the maitre d’ immediately impressed, though in an ideal world I would’ve preferred time for a preprandial at the bar rather than being ushered straight to the table. But we’re still in Covidian times and needs must. Instead, a serviceable Negroni arrived at the table promptly (we’ll forgive the non-regulation cherry garnish and slight dominance of vermouth).
And really there is only nitpicking to do. I may have noted another table having to chase their forgotten wine order and perhaps one of the young sous chefs delivering dishes to tables could’ve smiled more but it was a struggle to find any fault in the service.
On this visit, the food was not just incredibly delicious, technically proficient and easy on the eye, but left an indelible impression.
The à la carte menu offers 3 courses at £76 but for £4 more the 5 course tasting menu seemed eminently sensible (you’ve come all this way so an extra 4 quid isn’t going to hurt), starting with a bonus snack course. Pleasingly, these morsels only had laconic, one-word descriptions, leaving your senses to unravel the meaning behind “umami”, “trout” and “chicken.” After all, it’s far better going into a film without seeing the trailer or featurette first.
Arctic char with kombu and smoked roe, sea vegetables and roasted leek was an artfully plated dish and accompanied beautifully by a glass of creamy Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru (at a mark-up far lower than the industry standard, which was great to see).
Speaking of the wine, it’s rare to see such a comprehensive and fairly-priced list, including a ‘Discovery’ range which showcases wines distributed by Propeller, all at a flat rate of £21 per bottle. Some very reasonable wines by the glass include a 2017 Chateau Ballan-Larquette Rouge for £7. Matching wines aren’t an option here but I tend to find those wine flights a false economy anyway. In any case, a sommelier was on hand to advise on pairings.
Back to the food and still early on in proceedings came a personal highlight that I’ve been raving about ever since: salt-aged fillet, beetroot pastrami, Jerusalem artichoke and confit yolk with a jug of jus poured over. It may have looked like a small, delicate flower but I marvelled at its intricacy. Beetroot pastrami, too, was a revelation.
Next up, a lovely tour of three neighbouring Northern counties: Cumbrian lamb two ways (loin and belly), red pepper, Yorkshire black garlic and Lancashire pak choi. This may have appeared a minimalist plate, comprising three socially-distanced elements, but as with all of Wignall’s cuisine it’s about harmonious flavours and perfect meat cookery.
Caviar for an optional £20 extra was refined without being overly decadent, with a divine interplay of olive oil, frozen buttermilk and honey truffle.
And then two desserts, the first of which didn’t really move me. Maybe I didn’t appreciate the work involved in a small bowl of raspberries with hay smoked clotted cream – perhaps a deceptively simple dish – but it was the least memorable for me, personally. Finishing off on pistachio cake with aerated white chocolate, this was light and delicate, seguing beautifully into a coffee course. Sadly, as the Yorkshire sky began to bruise, this ruled out a digestif outside, but I would’ve stayed longer if possible. It’s that kind of place.
Postscript: at the time of writing this I noted that The Angel is looking for more FOH staff. I don’t know a single restaurant in the UK that isn’t looking for staff right now, thanks to the pincer movement of Brexit and Covid, but for any hospitality jobhunters reading, this restaurant is certainly worth learning from. It is, and I hope continues to be, a leading light in the UK fine dining scene.
by J A Smith