Sutton-on-the-Forest, a plush commuter village outside York, is an unlikely location for ambitious, high-intensity cooking, especially if the setting is a one-storey outbuilding or, if you prefer, shed.
Originally a stable, it was the gift shop of a stately home owned by Sam Cam's dad until local boy Adam Jackson, aged 37, moved in a year ago. Since then, the Park has lured the well-heeled with an eight-course, no-choice offering (there is also a vegetarian option) for a maximum of 14 diners. Jackson was formerly chef at the Black Swan in the nearby village of Oldstead, which won a Michelin star during his spell on the range.
At 7.15, we were first to arrive. Since there was no decision-making over the menu, we had plenty of time to admire the various knick-knacks around the bar (the price-tags suggested they were leftovers from the gift-shop era) presided over by a portrait of Sir Winston with cigar, presumably on loan from the current PM's father-in-law. The bar was painted in a grey-brown shade of Farrow & Ball. "Mole's Breath, I think," said my paint-obsessed wife, as we nibbled our cheesy amuse-gueules.
Transplanted to the small dining room, we tackled the first course of the menu proper (which changes every two weeks), a great pile of crunchy-crusted seed bread and a modest triangle of brown shrimps in butter – perhaps a bit too modest in the shrimp department. The flavour control was turned up for the second course, a disc of watercress purée topped with curls of watercress, sliced radish, olive oil crutons and a sous vide egg yolk. The crunch of the first three was a perfect foil for a yolk still lazily liquid due to its long, tepid bath. Though termed salmon vichyssoise, the third course turned out to be fragments of salmon tartare and a little roulade of cured salmon on a purée of sparkling fresh leek.
"They must have tons of plates," mused my wife. "You couldn't possibly do this kind of thing at home." Our friendly and efficient waitress Katherine informed us, "Adam has just one assistant. They start at 9am by picking vegetables from the estate garden." By this stage, a neighbouring table was occupied by a quartet of lawyers. Tantalising fragments of conversation emerged through the background music (Passenger, Mumford & Sons). "We had a bet once at an inquest in Doncaster..."
"This is Adam's take on boeuf bourguignon," said Katherine as she presented us with miniature cannelloni stuffed with beef cheek accompanied by shiitake mushrooms, spinach and broad beans. And, yes, purée No 3. I'd like Jackson's recipe for whatever he does to make white onion so concentrated and sweet. It would go with lots of other meats. You may recall that a rabbit prompted the Mole's taunt of "Onion sauce!" in The Wind in the Willows. Our fifth course was sorrel purée topped with fragments of crab, a flake or two of excellent home-salted cod (sous vide came into it somewhere, I believe) and 'brandade'. I'd been looking forward to my favourite dip when I saw it on the menu but was bemused to find that here it took the form of a spherical, deep-fried fish cake tinged with lemon.
"Nothing turns up as I expect," I said to Katherine.
"That's what Adam is aiming for."
The final purée of the evening was celery topped with juicy nuggets of pork fillet, warm rillettes of pork cheek and wild mushrooms. Hazlenut granola with apple and a hit of vinegar dressing was the finishing touch. "Carefully thought out," my wife said dreamily. "A fantastic combination of textures and tastes." I wasn't quite so transported. In my view, the Park needs more padding on its dining chairs if it is going to serve four-hour meals. Fortunately for my back, we'd reached the puds. First came a sort of palate cleanser consisting of apple granita, crème fraîche and black-berry, followed by 'plum compressed with lavender' – the sous vide having magically transformed it into an exotic tropical fruit – accompanied by almond sorbet, brandy snap and a whisp of chocolate.
The precisely-judged quantities of the meal delivered satisfaction without a hint of satiety (gourmands can have cheese for an extra £4). Jackson is a miniaturist, a culinary equivalent of Nicholas Hilliard willing to sacrifice his vertebrae for his art. "The amount of prep must be phenomenal," said my wife. "I've never had such ambitious food in a place with such a homely feel, not in the least threatening or intimidating." I was impressed by Jackson's variations on a theme, though an epic series of tiny dishes is not my favourite kind of meal. My wife did not agree. "I want you to tell them that I absolutely loved it"
Sutton Park, Sutton-on-the-Forest, York (01347 810852). £48 per head for eight-course tasting menu, without wine or coffeeReuse content