In Yorkshire, big is beautiful
When I rang on the previous day, the only available table was at 7pm. Since Harome is somewhat off the beaten track, even by Yorkshire standards, I arrived more than 20 minutes late. Still, Jacquie Pern, who manages front-of-house, was politeness itself as she showed us to our table in the small dining room. At my request, she turned down Ella Fitzgerald, who was a rather too insistent companion in the otherwise empty room. The "chef-patron", a beefy cove with hair cut en brosse, beamed down from a large framed photo in which he was hugging Michel Roux.
From the fish menu, a blackboard which changes every day, my companion plumped for deep-fried squid. A peculiarly mundane dish from the "chef- patron", I sniffed, what an earth could he do with it? Well, fry the tender rings in a rich saffron batter, then place a huge pile of them, like a dismembered Michelin man, on a generous slurry of gazpacho, that's what. From the standard menu, which changes every two weeks or so, I picked a kind of posh ploughman's lunch: three large curls of air-dried ham alternated with wedges of blue Jersey cheese. Here and there were dabs of sour cream topped with lovage flowers. A salad with the Pern trademark of two chives arranged like lobster feelers was crammed into one corner of this feast. I took a whole, warm ciabatta from our bread basket and plunged in.
One by one, the other tables filled up around us. The diners tended to be well-heeled and well-upholstered but thankfully less raucous than their counterparts down south. Most of them seemed to choose rack of lamb rather than the maritime items on the blackboard, and so did my companion. Four huge cutlets arrived, their juices imbued with rose and lavender. "Mmm, I'm in lamby heaven," she cooed after nibbling on a roseate sliver. I went for sea bream on champ potato with veloute of chives and roast calamari. Though the fillet was generously sized and correctly cooked (grilled, skin-on), its subtlety was overwhelmed by the richness of the thick disc of creamy potato and cabbage on which it rested and the surrounding pool of chive sauce. The stronger flavours of the three clumps of crispy squid tentacles, frantically pedalling in the air, fared far better. Accompanying the main course were great bowls containing mange tout, salad with strawberries and croutons, and boiled potatoes in herb butter.
The dessert course was no less prodigious. Noting the startled expression of one diner when presented with a portion of banana bread and butter pudding the size of a half-brick, my companion went for caramelised rice pudding on a bed of summer fruit mulled in red wine. Snaffling a spoonful, I found the rice a touch on the bland side but a wonderful blotter for the crimson lake of spiced berries. For my pud, I picked something called peppered pineapple tarte Tartin. This turned out to be a pastry shell containing a caramelised wheel of warm pineapple, spiked with black pepper, and topped with a melting splodge of honey ice-cream. Despite having a chunk of caramel welded to the back of my front teeth, I found the dish to be masterly. A triumph.
We were offered the choice of having coffee in the garden or in the "coffee- loft". Though I'm sure it's deliciously snug in the depths of a Yorkshire winter, this cramped attic, criss-crossed by a multitude of wildly contorted beams, proved to be stifling on a warm summer night. It was a delight to get out into the night. Under an inky sky, bats flitted against a horizon fringed with pomegranate pink. Including a most satisfactory bottle of Chateau Thieuley white Bordeaux at pounds 13.50, our bill came to pounds 61.35.
A similar generosity prevails at the Magpie Cafe, Whitby. Occupying a two-storey harbour-front structure dating from 1750, this has been a Yorkshire institution since 1937. And in some ways, the Magpie seems frozen in the Thirties. Its white-painted walls sparkle, its brasswork gleams, and many customers prefer to drink tea of a rich mahogany hue with their provender. Its extensive menu includes a whole lobster starter for pounds 10.95 (half for pounds 6.95), followed by such exotic offerings as grilled tuna on salad Nicoise or local haddock cooked en papier with sun-dried tomatoes and white wine.
There is even a Weight Watcher's Selection, but you can tell that the Magpie's heart isn't in it. Patrons are unlikely to shed many pounds by consuming "Mushroom and Butterbean Stroganoff with Rice". In fact, the vast majority of customers have fish and chips: "Nine out of 10 have it at lunchtime," a chef told me, taking a breather from his murky subterranean haunt. "The specials are more popular at night."
We both plunged for the standard (8-10 oz) haddock and chips, but the menu pointed out that "those with even bigger appetites" could have a fish of "approximately 12-14 oz" and "those with enormous appetites" could tussle with an ichthyological monstrosity weighing "approximately 16-18oz". "We don't get many asking for those," admitted the cook. When it appeared, apparently a few seconds after we made our order, the standard fish was perhaps a foot in length, but it had been fried in dripping so hot that it had curled into a parabola. The crunchy batter assumed wildly elaborate Gothic forms. The fish hiding inside wasn't bad, but didn't match the milk-white, piscine perfection I've had in the past at the Magpie. The chips, again, were middling, not flaccid but lacking the crunchiness of a faultless frite. But, to be fair, we were dining at the crowded height of the season.
Unless you come very early, you have to share tables at the Magpie, which is usually a very jolly experience. Two of our dining companions decided to order prawn salads, which took the form of massive mounds of crustacea surrounded by six different salads: coleslaw, potato salad with sultanas and so on. We left them giving careful thought to the pudding course. The Magpie tackles this end of the meal with great thoroughness, offering a choice of 30 hefty desserts, ranging from sticky toffee pudding to Jamaican fudge slice at pounds 2.60 a time. Even without sweet, we felt to have eaten enough for a week as we carefully manoeuvred our way into the broiling cauldron that is Whitby in August. As we left, at exactly 1pm, there was a queue of 22 people waiting to enter. Including one pot of tea and a half-pint of lager, the bill for lunch came to pounds 15.85
Star Inn, Harome, Near Helmsley, North Yorkshire (01439 770397). Open Sunday 10.00am-6.00pm, Tuesday to Saturday 12.00pm-2.00pm, 6.45pm-9.30pm. Magpie Cafe, 14 Pier Road, Whitby, North Yorkshire (01947 602058). Open from early Feb to end of December: 11.30am-9.00pm
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