Rose & Crown, Sutton-on-the-Forest

It's boom time at the Rose & Crown near York. Christopher Hirst found the size of the portions (and the tables) a bit 'neo-Yorkshire', and the music irritating, but the food was spectacular - particularly that ordered by his wife
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Though it sounds like a Sleepy Hollow-style woodland hamlet, Sutton-on-the-Forest is a well-manicured village of mainly 18th-century cottages, ideally placed for managing directors to commute the eight miles to York in their Range Rovers. A corridor of trees flanking the approach road attempts to maintain the sylvan illusion, but there is no forest to speak of. Still, there's quite a bit of woodland wildlife around. At 7.45 on a Saturday evening, the air was filled with cawing, twittering and cooing. The car park of the Rose & Crown was already packed. This may seem unusual for a village pub, but this particular hostelry was converted into a restaurant 18 months ago by local gastro-tycoon Ralph Magee, who installed a young hot-shot called Stephen Harper in the kitchen.

Though it sounds like a Sleepy Hollow-style woodland hamlet, Sutton-on-the-Forest is a well-manicured village of mainly 18th-century cottages, ideally placed for managing directors to commute the eight miles to York in their Range Rovers. A corridor of trees flanking the approach road attempts to maintain the sylvan illusion, but there is no forest to speak of. Still, there's quite a bit of woodland wildlife around. At 7.45 on a Saturday evening, the air was filled with cawing, twittering and cooing. The car park of the Rose & Crown was already packed. This may seem unusual for a village pub, but this particular hostelry was converted into a restaurant 18 months ago by local gastro-tycoon Ralph Magee, who installed a young hot-shot called Stephen Harper in the kitchen.

As we arrived, the manager Andy Maxwell was turning away a couple who had arrived without reservations. "I hate doing that," he said, "but I could have filled our 50 covers twice over tonight." A 14-strong dining club of local professionals and their wives, or, possibly, husbands, were enjoying an aperitif in the bar. Very jolly they were too. "My brother read about this place in the Yorkshire Post," one of them announced. A copy of the rave review was framed on the wall. "Brings to mind the species of lively neo-Yorkshire cooking provided at the Star at Harome," it applauded. This was promising since the Star is regarded as pretty hot stuff in these parts, but when my starter arrived, I began to have doubts about "neo-Yorkshire" cuisine. Seven quid for for a tiny cylinder of fresh salmon potted in excellent herb butter, accompanied by a teaspoonful of over-capered crayfish mayonnaise and a spot of salad, would have my pud-chomping Yorkshire forebears revolving in their graves.

As always seems to be the case, my wife fared better with her choice. From the £21.50 three-course dinner menu her starter consisted of three tortellini bulging with goat's cheese. I'd forgotten that warm goat's cheese is one of the great tastes of the world. The fresh pasta globes were wonderfully complemented by a Provençal sauce of fresh tomatoes and herbs. This sublime mouthful took my mind off the fact that we were seated at probably the smallest table I've ever had in a restaurant. It was so titchy that about a third of each of our plates overlapped the edge. In this, we were unlucky, because every other table seemed to be of conventional size.

Like the odd assortment of dining chairs, the tables appeared to have been snapped up as a job lot in an auction. Normally, I wouldn't mind, since I'd much prefer a restaurant to invest in its batterie de cuisine than fancy-pants furnishing, but I did feel like Arnie Schwarzenegger at a dolls' tea party. Fortunately, we weren't drinking tea. From a short but impressive wine list, I'd gone for a bottle of Cloudy Bay at £28.95. It was worth every penny. Moreover, it was only a few quid more than the last time I'd had the legendary New Zealand sauvignon more than a decade ago. Selfishly, I'd chosen this mind-blowing white because I was maintaining the fishy theme with my main course.

Surrounded by a trio of perfectly caramelised scallops, my pan-fried turbot (£14.50) was reasonably sized and cooked just as it should be. It lay on three, longitudinally-sliced, char-grilled baby fennel. Providing the foundation for the fish-and-fennel pile was a thick disc of herby risotto.

This was OK in itself, but both its heavy seasoning and grainy texture overwhelmed the delicate flakes of this non-pareil among flatfish. Terry Turbot was KO'd. As before, my wife's choice was annoyingly superior. Her Gressingham duck breast was as tender as any I've ever tasted. Cut into three hefty chunks, it came on a bed of cubed, roast globe artichokes, accompanied by a few wisps of spring cabbage and a coracle of mille-feuille pastry packed with a crew of tiny, intensely sweet roast onions.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!" exploded the cheery contingent of professionals round the corner. Oddly, I didn't find their gales of laughter anything like as annoying as I would have if I'd been subjected to the guffaws of their counterparts in Surrey. In fact, their hilarity served a useful function in that it blotted out the tape of elderly pop which eddied from a loudspeaker. This was not loud or even intrusive, but it is nevertheless mystifying that a serious restaurant like the Rose & Crown persists in the belief that the sound of Donovan trying to catch the wind or Lou Reed walking on the wild side will assist the digestive process.

With my fine pud of bitter-sweet, barely-cooked slices of fig in the familiar puff-pastry coracle balanced by warm apricot marmalade and pecan ice-cream (once again, the quantity was a bit neo-Yorkshire), I thought I'd finally out-chosen my wife. But no. Her chilled vanilla ricotta was the stuff of heaven. Like a miniature ship's funnel, it sat in a lake of passion-fruit jus, studded with raspberries, frais de bois, blueberries and blackberries. Coffee came accompanied by a curious variety of sweeties ­ the obligatory truffle, a cube of vanilla fudge and a tiny doughnut ­ and a bust-up among a six-strong party at a nearby table. "I just want to tell you one fucking thing about yourself," hissed a harridan to her male neighbour. Not very neo-Yorkshire. Sadly, we didn't catch the nature of this revelation.

Andy Maxwell admitted that the restaurant was going through a period of "fine tuning". I hope this includes tuning out Carly Simon, since I heard "You're So Vain" at least twice. But I'll certainly go back. To spare myself the agony of decision-making, I'll probably go for the Hobson's Choice menu of three courses for £14.50. Equally economical are the six house wines at £10.95 apiece. From Wednesday to Friday of next week, the restaurant is offering a three-course election special menu for £12.95, including terrine Widdecombe, Gordon Brown prudence soup (75p rebate) and chicken Portillo. "We're thinking of starting with Prescott punch," said Andy.

 

Rose & Crown, Main Street, Sutton-on-the-Forest, York (01347 811333). Wed-Sat lunch 11.45am-2pm, dinner 6.45-9.00pm, Sun lunch 11.45am-4pm. Closed Mon and Tue. Major cards except Amex and Diners accepted. Wheelchair access.

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