In York last weekend I committed high treason. I left a stag do to go for dinner. I know, imagine being that guy.
As the other lads, the real boys, prepared for a million beers, a friend and I quietly snuck out the back and went off for a romantic little supper a deux.
Pathetic, isn’t it? A crime against the laws of banter. What would Danny Dyer say?
In mitigation, it was to Roots, Tommy Banks’s new-ish restaurant, and I had made the booking before the stag even existed.
In some ways, I said, they had built the whole weekend around my dinner reservation.
This didn’t cut much ice. “You could have told me, mate,” the groom pleaded, like a dog standing by the Aga. “It’s a bit off.”
There is almost nobody I wouldn’t abandon for a meal as good as the one I had last spring at the Black Swan, the Banks family’s Michelin-starred pub in Oldstead, an HBO set of a Yorkshire village where perfect lampposts cast golden light into one of the most imaginative and accomplished kitchens in the country.
Briefly it was TripAdvisor’s “best restaurant in the world”, but don’t let that put you off. Tommy, the eldest son, is the chef, his brother looks after front of house, and the parents run the hotel rooms into which their customers stagger, night after night, dizzy with flavour and roaringly pissed.
Tommy is like a spoof of the strapping son of Yorkshire, which makes him good on telly, and has an extraordinary grasp of flavours and ingredients, many of which are grown in fields that stretch away from the building down gently rolling Dales. The main dining room looks ever so slightly like a provincial wine bar, but you hardly notice.
Having defeated the countryside, the Banks Mob have set their sights on town. Roots, which opened at the end of last year, is located just outside the city centre in a large, smart Tudorish building. This time I wasn’t their guest, hadn’t warned them I was coming, and was frankly a bit unsteady on account of the long afternoon of pints, so I was surprised to be treated charmingly throughout.
There is, I’m afraid, a bit of “concept” at Roots. They split the year into three seasons: winter is “Preserving Season”, summer is “The Time of Abundance” and the dearth between them is “The Hunger Gap”.
Dishes, which are split between small and slightly larger, are sent from the kitchen in “waves”, ie not related to conventions of starters or mains.
Even our waiter, who otherwise had the sunny demeanour of the salesman who knows they’re flogging the good stuff, seemed to cringe slightly at this. They can all relax.
Everything about Roots exudes confidence and hospitality, a sense that thoughtful, seasonal, forward-thinking cooking need not come at the expense of a good night out or value for money. TripAdvisor can keep its grubby mitts off it.
Which isn’t to say everything exactly hit the spot. Much has been made of the cheese custard, which comes in an early wave with a basket of sourdough, seeded crackers and a pat of cultured butter. Cheese... custard, a smooth little dunking pot of double Gloucester, like God’s own Dairylea. Yet despite a ravening hunger and a deep spiritual attachment to cheesy dips, I found the custard and its butter buddy a bit overpowering. It’s not them, it’s me.
Everything else was superb. One of the Black Swan’s signature dishes is beetroot cooked in beef and it’s here, too: a little triangle of vegetable that has been cooked in beef fat for a very long time, perhaps a day, maybe a year, and iced with curd.
The vegetable glistened a deep purple under the lights. It’s as though the muse struck Banks when he was sitting in a bath of borscht. Lamb bao was even more joyful, a fat cube of pink meat sitting in soft white carbohydrate beneath little sheets of pickled turnip and decorated with white wild-garlic flowers. A strip of salt beef came with dollops of mustard and gherkin under a shaggy pile of grated Old Winchester. We ate in silence and tried to work out what the flavour reminded us of.
“It’s like a McDonald’s burger,” my companion said at last. I’m sure this was our lager-addled palates doing a disservice to the nuances, but at the time it felt not only correct but the highest possible praise. If a plate of sliced hogget rump (sheep’s meat between lamb and mutton in age) with flowering kale, and hasselback potatoes on a bed of wild garlic, didn’t match up, that’s no real criticism.
At that we drew the line. A more thorough appraisal would have included the rhubarb with beans and bass, the ray wing and “tartare” sauce, any of the lauded desserts, but we were happy and full and, frankly, pissed, and had only spent a hundred quid in total. It was time to get back to the stag. A million beers were waiting. Roots understood.
Should you go? Yes
Would I go again? Yes
This week I am introducing a third category: would you take your parents? Some of the things I don’t mind about restaurants, like loud music, tables being close together, standing up, queueing, being treated with contempt by surly hipster staff are deal-breakers for older people. I’ll try to assess that.
Would you take your parents? Yes
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