The Talbot Hotel, Yorkersgate, Malton, North Yorkshire
Following a deafening dinner at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen a few years ago, when twenty-somethings maintained a roundelay of "Happy Birthday" for much of the evening, I've steered clear of restaurants run by TV chefs. So it was with trepidation that I entered the refurbished mansion (Pevsner: "probably c.1840") that houses the Talbot Hotel in Malton, North Yorkshire, since the owners Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland and his son Tom have installed local boy James Martin, an ornament of Saturday Kitchen and other televisual bonbons, as executive chef.
As it turned out, the 20 middle-aged diners on a Tuesday night were impeccably behaved. Everyone but us appeared to be hotel guests lured by an enticing offer. They half-filled the dining room that ends in a huge bay window overlooking the sublime countryside leading to Castle Howard, where Mr Martin grew up on one of the estate farms. "With an abundance of great suppliers across North Yorkshire," the menu announces, "you can be sure that James's larder will be full of some of the very best ingredients on offer." The first part is certainly true; the area is a cornucopia.
Starting with the artfully arranged walking sticks at the door, the owners have attempted to re-create the haphazard accumulation of a long-established country-house hotel, but, lacking a haul of faded impedimenta, they have been obliged to resort to repro.
The main decorative feature of the hotel, a series of large 18th-century equine portraits, appear to be unpersuasive mechanical copies of canvases from the Naylor-Leyland stately pile near Peterborough. The effect is kitschy and jarring.
Even more intrusive was the country music that boomed in the dining room. If it had been in a pub, I'd have walked out. By the time "Bye Bye Love" came round for the second time, I too felt "I'm a-gonna cry".
Further flaws in this culinary arcadia emerged when we came to the wine. From a list that starts at around £25 and culminates appropriately in vintages of Chateau Talbot (£139-£259), I picked "Chateau Lagrange Les Tours St Julien 2005" for £35. It was a bargain for this appellation, except I couldn't see St Julien on the label. Later, I discovered that Lagrange Les Tours is separated by the Garonne and Dordogne rivers from St Julien.
Whatever the explanation, it turned out to be an impressive, mature claret. Best of all, it actually arrived, unlike the glasses of Picpoul de Pinet we ordered with our first course. Eventually a bottle appeared but was whisked away to the table that had actually ordered it. A waiter said, "I'll go and sort your glasses out for you." Still nothing came. We did, however, receive a bottle of water instead of the tap water we requested.
My wife discerned a crisis in the kitchen. "I've never known such a nervy lot." At front of house, there was much conferring and anxious peering at computer screens. Despite arriving at inexplicably spasmodic intervals, the food displayed a finesse lacking in other areas. Alison's starter, a perfect circle of home-cured salmon, had a good depth of flavour. It was topped with curls of what looked like crispy snakeskin – actually dehydrated charred cucumber – that added texture rather than flavour. My red mullet with notable black pudding from Fletcher's Butchers of Norton across the River Derwent was simple, tasty and cheering.
This was followed by beer-braised beef cheek so tender as to form a sort of solid soup on a bed of wild-garlic risotto. I later learned that The Observer's reviewer had also visited and oddly declared this hefty item to be "this year's best dish so far". For my money, the roast lamb was infinitely preferable. Three generous lumps of leg – juicy and pink with a sensational flavour – came with two big nuggets of deep-fried, breadcrumbed sweetbreads and crisp asparagus pared to matchsticks. It could not have been better.
A long plate bearing gooseberry set cream, jelly, and lemon thyme ice cream punctuated by tiny gooseberries was a refreshing and well-executed combination. By comparison, our other dessert was a baffling disappointment. "Gariguette strawberries" only justified the plural by a whisker. Accompanied by a lozenge of unassertive wild-strawberry sorbet and "aged balsamic" (Alison detected a blob the size of a full-stop), there were exactly two and a quarter of these early French treasures. At first I thought they had gone off but then realised that they had been poached. How strange when the "great suppliers across North Yorkshire" were producing their first Elysian punnets.
"Ah cain't stop lurving yooo," bellowed the music as we left. Personally, I'd never start with that racket going on.
The Talbot Hotel, Yorkersgate, Malton, North Yorkshire (01653 639096). £33 for two courses, £39 for three
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