One hundred years ago, the first Michelin guide to Great Britain encouraged motorists to burn rubber by beating a path to recommended hotels. In 2011, just 20 of Michelin's early tips remain in its slender red volume. One robust survivor is the Black Swan in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. This well-heeled market town still attracts latter-day Mr Toads who relish a burn-up on the county's unpopulated roads. On Sundays, the market place is chock-a-block with gleaming motorcycles tended by owners in garish leathers. Poop poop!
Just as it did a century ago, the Black Swan caters to visitors drawn to Helmsley by the grouse moors to the north and gorgeous Ryedale to the east. The hotel is not content to rest on its laurels. Behind the politely restrained façade ("a nice Georgian job," according to Pevsner), the hotel has refurbished its bar, producing a cross between a country-house lounge and a Thirties cocktail joint. My wife was offered a choice of three gins for her G&T, but the flat-screen TV silently mouthing Sky News is a mistake. A similar effort is apparent in the kitchen, where an ambitious Australian chef called Paul Peters counters competition from the two-restaurant empire of Andrew Pern in the nearby village of Harome.
It proved a bit tricky to negotiate the menu. From the £33 table d'hôte for three courses, I was tempted by pressed pork belly followed by slow-braised lamb shoulder, but this would have been too unremittingly carnivorous. From the à la carte, which involved a complicated series of supplements, I was lured by scallops (+ £5), halibut (+ £7) and beef fillet (+ £9). With the prospective bill heading north of £40, my value-for-money calculation (a Yorkshire speciality) suggested that the six-course Signature Menu for £50, which included scallops, halibut and beef fillet, might be the best deal.
Though bemused by the menu's sales pitch ("created using the region's finest produce and influenced by modern British cuisine sourced from land, rivers, lakes and seas"), I was swayed by a waiter's assertion, "Most people go for the Signature". Fortunately, since it "must be taken by the whole table", my wife agreed. Calculation gave way to ingestion.
Chef Peters flaunted his ambition with a "green salad" starter. This proved to be two tiny heaps of granita, a green one made from some herby stuff and a brown one made from sherry vinegar, which flanked a large, gleaming black olive. When I probed it with a fork, the olive collapsed into a slurry of purée. I had encountered a culinary legend, nothing less than the spherified olive of Ferran Adria's El Bulli. It demands prodigious patience (the Spanish maestro requires the purée to be sieved by hand 15 times) and skill. The Black Swan rendition was wholly persuasive though, entre nous, I'm not entirely sure that I wouldn't have preferred a real olive.
I would certainly have liked a more potent accompaniment than a foamy shot glass of "elderflower espuma". The wine pairing (£20 per person) did not start until the second course. Chef Peters should be vigorously informed that it is not a good idea to leave guests without a drink at the start of the meal. Things picked up on the second course, which consisted of two caramelised scallops accompanied by a pleasingly astringent Loire sauvignon/voignier. The sweet interior of the shellfish was teetering on the edge of raw. "They have got a just-out-of-the-shell taste," said my wife.
A crescent of slow-roasted foie gras, partnered with a red, chilled, fortified red from Maury, was an edible definition of "unctuous". The warm, buttery liver in its crispy crust came poised on a sprinkle of baked oats with blobs of concentrated cherry jelly. The result was rather like breakfast granola but it worked OK, providing stabs of flavour that cut the fattiness of the foie gras.
This indulgence was followed by a wedge of pan-fried halibut sandwiched between two versions of fennel, roasted below and blanched above, with a splat of unspeakably delicious vanilla-infused mash on the side. It was fishy perfection. Accompanied by Very Sexy Shiraz From South Africa (far better than the name), the beef fillet was a slight anti-climax. Though impeccably tender, it was too unassertive on the palate when competing with Madeira jus and truffled mash. Girolles were mentioned on the menu, but if they were here they came from Lilliput. Partnered with a fizzy Muscat from Asti, the dessert provided a happy ending. Carpaccio of pineapple, lifted with a prickle of peppery heat, came with the second trompe l'oeil of the meal. A highly plausible half-coconut turned out to be coconut sorbet with a "skin" of chocolate powder.
Paul Peters' cooking merits a detour to Helmsley. I would, however, recommend one alteration. While he's chucking out the TV in the bar, the manager should include the canned music in the restaurant. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" may have matched the halibut but it was a side order too far.
The Black Swan Hotel, Market Place, Helmsley, North Yorkshire (01439 770466)
Six-course Signature Menu £50 per head. Beverage pairing £20 per head
Tipping policy: "The amount of the tip is entirely up to the customer. All tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Yorkshire's finest
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