I once spent a long train journey sitting across the aisle from a man I vaguely knew, who had recently become my friend on Facebook. We sat beside each other for five hours, and I never quite plucked up the nerve to speak to him. When I got home, I sent him a Facebook message saying, "Was that you on the train today?". He confirmed that it had been and that he had recognised me, too, but also hadn't said hello.
I'm relating this shaming modern parable in sympathy with Tom van Zeller, the chef/proprietor of an ambitious restaurant in Harrogate. Tom sent me a friendly e-mail out of the blue, inviting me to be the first national restaurant critic to review Van Zeller. It sounded great; relaxed fine dining, innovative, seasonally-inspired food, and – the clincher – backing from David Moore, co-owner of the two-Michelin-starred Pied à Terre and one of Raymond Blanc's inspectors on The Restaurant. Tick, tick, tickety-tick, as M Blanc probably never said.
So I went to Harrogate. At the end of a memorably good lunch, my guest and I were the last customers in the small dining room. Tom van Zeller came out from the kitchen, walked passed us to do something at the till, met a supplier, interviewed a new staff member; all without so much as a hello or a friendly glance in our direction. Tom, mate – you e-mailed me! I wanted to shout, but obviously couldn't because I was there anonymously. Nevertheless, surely, in a small restaurant, in a smallish town, in a recession, it makes sense for the owner to say "hello" to his customers? Or have I just been watching too much Michel Roux and Mary Portas?
"Maybe he's shy," suggested my lunch guest. Maybe so – but that doesn't seem borne out by his restaurant, which has effectively been built in van Zeller's image. Not only is his name over the door but a life-size photo of him greets you as you walk through it. Press cuttings in the window hymn his achievements. He's a big figure on the Yorkshire dining scene – a local lad who started his career at the famous Betty's Tea Rooms and worked with Raymond Blanc and Tom Aikens, among others, before returning to Yorkshire and, in 2009, opening his own restaurant.
Very appealing it is, too; tucked away down a quaint shopping street in Montpellier, the most affluent part of affluent Harrogate, just down the hill from Betty's. The smart but not overly formal dining room reflects Van Zeller's "fine food without the fuss" philosophy, the standard-issue black leather chairs, cream walls, white tablecloths and hotel artwork offset by a pleasingly scruffy black wooden floor.
The surprises are saved for the menu, or rather menus; as well as the à la carte, there's a good-value set menu and a six-course tasting menu. All of them are more than usually interesting; van Zeller's style is innovative without being radical or gimmicky, built around superb, often local, ingredients. It's not often you see Yorkshire cobble on the same menu as lapsang souchong espuma.
A starter of roast mallard breast, from the nearby Ripley Castle estate, impressed not just for the big, deep flavour of the ruby-red meat, but for the range of flavours that surrounded it; a dusting of powdered cep underpinning the dish with a subtle note of umami, while celeriac remoulade and quince jelly did interesting things in the foreground. From the set menu, ham hock terrine, pressed into two generous bricks, was more labour-intensive than you'd expect at this price point, with its Morse code dots of beetroot purée, spiced fruit chutney and twist of potato galette.
That beetroot purée reappeared alongside loin of Scottish venison, rested, like the duck, to the point of tenderness, along with a fabulous choucroute spiked with smoked sausage. Golden, thumbnail-sized queen scallops, pan-fried and generous in number for a set-meal dish, came with a herby risotto dotted with glossy squid-ink purée, slightly over-reliant on truffle-oil for its impact, but otherwise excellent.
Puddings confirmed van Zeller's sure touch; a warm slice of hazelnut cake with treacle foam – the first foam of the lunch – and a complicated chocolate arrangement which combined a dark and slippery tart and a brownie depth-charged with something popcornish.
Proprietorial shyness apart, service was generally friendly, but disjointed, led by a waiter who told us he'd been there two days and would soon be moving on. Twice we asked for the wine list, and both times, we had to call someone over to take our order. And twice we sent the bill back for unordered items to be removed. Otherwise, Van Zeller is certainly working hard to pull in punters of every pay-grade, notably by offering a steal of a January sale menu at £12.50 for three courses. With cooking of this quality, this cracking little restaurant deserves to be packed with customers. All that's missing is the TLC. Just a smile and a greeting, Tom, and you would have had us at "hello".
Van Zeller, 8 Montpellier Street, Harrogate (01423 508762)
Set menu £15.50 for two courses, £20.50 for three courses. A la carte around £40 a head before wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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