Based on cruel actuarial calculation, a tontine is an investment that pays an increasing annuity as other participants die off. In 1804, this morbid mechanism was used to raise funds for the Cleveland Tontine, a coaching inn built to serve the Sunderland-London route, which is now the rackety A19. In 1976, the Tontine was acquired by the three McCoy brothers, Eugene, Tom and Peter, who became leading lights of northern gastronomy. When I last visited the Tontine 20 years ago, a meal in the upstairs restaurant was a curious experience in rural North Yorkshire. Packed with parasols, it was like a stage set from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and the extravagant dishes were equally theatrical.
After four decades of expansion and contraction, the McCoy empire has stabilised in the form of a hotel with basement bistro. Cooked by head chef Simon Whalley, the food is mercifully more down-to-earth (the fish comes from Hartlepool; the meat from Darlington). The operation still displays some odd quirks, not least on the website which reveals that the McCoys "love ... 1950s Middlesbrough bus place name blinds", but fails to give opening hours. When my wife and I visited the bistro for a midweek lunch, inadequate signage (due to be improved) involved us in a north-south-north zigzag on the A19.
Going downstairs in the solid 19th-century structure, we found ourselves transported to a persuasive rendition of a Parisian bistro. Candles glowed on every table. Vines in plaster relief curled on a low, brown ceiling. Charles Trenet warbled "Quand notre coeur fait boum!" from 1938. Framed menus from La Coupole, Allard, Benoit and other great brasseries revealed that one of the McCoys had engaged in some hefty wining and dining in Paris around 1968, rather than participating in the événements.
An aproned waiter told us to pick any table we liked. In one corner, a quartet of northern ladies who lunch were tucking in with heartiness rare among their southern sisters. At a nearby table, a diner held his Wee Willie Winkie candlestick over the Racing Post in order to illuminate likely winners at the nearby Thirsk Races. No one felt the urge to move to the brightness of an adjoining conservatory. "It's the perfect place to pass a blustery autumn day," said my wife.
In keeping with the surroundings, I plumped for a starter of French black pudding in three styles. "There's no way of making this sound glamorous," said John, our waiter, delivering the noir trio. "That's a black pudding sausage roll and that's a croquette of black pudding with blue cheese." The third element, a cylinder of black pudding au naturel, spoke for itself. Sitting in an ooze of dark, fruity sauce, the cooked coagulations were deeply satisfying. How come soft French black pudding is so much better than our version? From the carte de jour, my wife kicked off with seafood mezza of seared tuna, smoked salmon and the best squid rings I've ever stolen from anyone's plate.
Though the wine list rapidly soared to the stratosphere, my choice of a £23 bottle called ViDivi, a merlot/grenache blend from the Catalan producer Espelt, drew a consummate plaudit from John: "I've just brought a case myself". It was terrific. The same applied to my wife's rump of lamb, which came in the form of four chunky rosé ovals accompanied by peas, broad beans and borlotti beans. The only oddity was the kitchen's approach to plate embellishment, which looked more like an accidental daub than a fashionable smear.
"You should always go for lamb," my wife announced after her first ecstatic mouthful, which was a trifle annoying since she had urged me to go for belly pork with apricots, sage and mustard. Not that I'm complaining. Instead of the customary porky lumps, this arrived in the form of two precise rectangular blocks. My guess is that it had been cooked, pressed, then cooked again to produce compressed layers of tasty, flaky pork beneath a crunchy skin that was crisp without quite becoming crackling. Purées of potato and squash provided delicious lubrication.
My wife's dessert of lemon posset was so addictively tangy that I was obliged to have a second sampling. My sticky toffee pudding fulfilled the "soft and luscious" requirements of the dish's greatest celebrant Simon Hopkinson, though I committed a sin against the Gospel according to St Hoppy by having it with ice-cream ("far too sweet") rather than double cream ("a very nice cooling contrast").
Savouring the last molecules of posset, my wife declared her three-course meal to be "excellent value" at £19.95. My ramble through the à la carte ended up being twice that. If the weather had been just 1C cooler, we might have succumbed to the temptation of cheese and another bottle of ViDivi but, rather like Adam and Eve being booted out of paradise, we steeled ourselves for the wrench from this cosy corner of the Quartier Latin into the afternoon squalls of North Yorkshire.
McCoys at the Cleveland Tontine, Staddlebridge Northallerton, North Yorkshire (01609 882671)
About £100 for two with drinks
Tipping policy: "The amount of the tip is entirely up to the customer. All tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: North Yorks stars
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