Restaurant review

Roots, York: A dynamic tasting menu showcasing the best of the north

If you want to experience the best of what this part of the country has to offer, Tommy Banks’ Roots should be top of your list, says Hannah Twiggs

Thursday 26 May 2022 15:50 BST
Crab brioche and caviar: Too pretty to eat, too delicious not to
Crab brioche and caviar: Too pretty to eat, too delicious not to (Hannah Twiggs)

Trying to recall a meal I had three weeks ago while I’m currently unable to taste or smell anything thanks to an overdue case of Covid – yep, that’s still a thing – is a strange experience. A kind of deprivation torture and sensory daydream all in one. Fortunately, it was a meal I won’t soon forget.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to visit some of the UK’s stellar northern restaurants, and Tommy Banks’ Roots, in York, is one that makes the trip worth it. The sister restaurant to the Black Swan in Oldstead, it’s doable in a day from London, with time to spare for sightseeing should you need to walk off your meal… which you almost certainly will.

It’s a tasting menu-only affair, which will turn up some noses, I’m sure, but bear with. The menu, supplied by the family farm in Oldstead as well as quality local producers, changes constantly with the seasons and what’s available – these things have started to feel like somewhat of a box-ticking exercise – but that doesn’t mean the same evergreen dishes are churned out again and again. Yes, lamb is served in spring, but last year it was paired with kohlrabi and wild garlic, two of the most talked about ingredients of 2021; when I visited a few weeks ago, there was asparagus, raw milk sheep’s yoghurt, black garlic and punchy wood sorrel on my plate. Each dish is more a manifestation of the season, than a reflection of it, and driven by current trends and Banks’ own creativity.

Just a short walk from York’s railway station, Roots is ideal for a daytrip
Just a short walk from York’s railway station, Roots is ideal for a daytrip (Hannah Twiggs)

That signature ingredient-led playfulness is apparent from the get-go. On arrival, our palettes are cleansed with a chicken and lemon verbena broth, a silky cup of warmth that smells like roast dinner, but without the stomach ache. It’s welcoming to see the refreshing and oddly creamy lemon verbena, more commonly paired with seafood, finally getting its moment. I’ve come to loathe ambiguous descriptions on menus, and this one is definitely a big offender, but when the “venison, celeriac and yeast” arrives, my Instagram-stalking pays off. It’s a Jerusalem artichoke tart filled with dry-aged beef, dressed in tangerine-marigold oil, and an artichoke and roasted yeast mousse, sprinkled with grated smoked ox heart and last year’s dried marigolds. OK, that’s a bit long for a menu. It’s much, much smaller than anticipated – I can fit it in my palm and devour it in one bite – but it packs a powerful umami punch, with earthiness from the artichoke and peppery spice from the marigold. I want to eat five of them. No, ten.

The two-part crab brioche and caviar course, another Instagram spoiler, also leaves me wanting more. The two dishes, which arrive together, are like little works of art – sculptures of flavour, if you will – and seem too pretty to eat, yet too delicious to not demolish in seconds. I want – no, need - the recipe for that fried brioche. I’m baffled at how something so puffy can also be so creamy. It’s topped with crab meat dressed in fermented chilli and elderflower oil, a welcome kick cutting through the richness of the seafood. The accompanying crab “custard” with a parsley and mussel sauce and a dollop of Daurenki caviar is like a savoury dessert. Two bites of pure brilliance.

The lamb course: served with the most artistic asparagus you’ve ever seen and the glorious lamb neck cruffin
The lamb course: served with the most artistic asparagus you’ve ever seen and the glorious lamb neck cruffin (Hannah Twiggs)

I’m also rather enamoured by the lamb cruffin that arrives alongside the aforementioned lamb. I want to say I’ve been drawn to Roots for Banks’ culinary ingenuity and and his restaurants’ reputation for seasonal, local food done well, but I’d be lying if I said the sight of this croissant-muffin hybrid stuffed with delicious lamb neck and coated in lamb crackling on Roots’ social media wasn’t at least partly (if not wholly) responsible. Are further descriptions even necessary? You could tear it apart and enjoy it on its own, but its main function is to mop up the blackcurrant and wood sorrel-spiked lamb sauce. That subtle citrus flavour in each dish, from ingredients like sorrel and lemon verbena, is the thread that ties the menu together, perfect for the season and indicative of how thoughtful this recipe creation is. The lamb, a Texel cross saddle roasted on the bone, is served with the most beautiful spear of asparagus you ever did see, barbecued and criss-crossed with yoghurt and black garlic. More proof that presentation is an art form.

Other supporting acts included a brined and barbecued Senshyu onion straight from the farm served in a pool of whey and fermented onion sauce (translation: an extremely bouji pickled onion); a selection of local cheeses that featured peculiar – and delicious – transparent crackers made from seeds and potato starch; a fabulously creamy dessert made from chicory root and potato (from bottom to top: chicory crumble, chicory root ice cream, ratte potato foam, chicory root powder, chicory caramel), demonstrating how far you can make just one small ingredient go. All this is expertly paired with a drinks package marrying wines to main ingredients. The acidity and bubbles of a Classic Cuvee 2015 from Charles Palmer cut through the richness of crab, and complement the creaminess of the brioche. A 2019 Varone Heida adds smokiness and drops of pear to that pickled onion – and would have also gone well with cheese. With turbot, a Chateau Bela-Egon Muller riesling from 2018 with strong hints of honey. For the lamb, the waiter sneaked in a tannin-heavy 2010 Vallana Gattinara from the pricier of the two drinks packages. The Pedro Ximenez Cardenal Cisneros, a big and rich sherry with punches of fruit, nut and coffee, was perfect for the chicory-potato dish, but could have been a dessert on its own. More and more I’ve found myself handing back half-drunk glasses of wine – whether that’s a reflection of my own drinking capacity or an indication that these packages are just a bit too much, is a topic for another time.

Venison, celeriac and yeast: an earthy, spicy, umami-packed mouthful
Venison, celeriac and yeast: an earthy, spicy, umami-packed mouthful (Hannah Twiggs)

Not everything hits the mark, though. I’m surprised I don’t love the “pear, spruce, Cote Hill Blue” – ice cold spheres of Williams pear, blobs of black apple puree in a pine and gooseberry broth, topped with a blue cheese granita that is so pungent it will take your breath away. It’s a dish that makes me appreciate the craft, but be warned: the granita is strong and could be off-putting for the regular diner. A Marmite dish. The steamed turbot with barbecued brassicas (is there any other way to have them?) and celeriac sauce, which on any other menu I probably would have enjoyed, feels plain after such a powerhouse of flavour. I am simply not a fan of macaroons, the final instalment of the menu, finding them too sweet and too sticky. These stipulations seem just a matter of taste, though, in the face of such an imaginative and expertly executed meal.

If you can look past the £160 per head price tag, plus £19 for cheese and £75-£130 for the drinks packages – and that is a big ask, especially outside of London – you’ll find a dynamic and inventive tasting menu that treads a fine line between the stuffiness often associated with this style of eating, and celebrating home-grown excellence. You can see why it was awarded the Michelin Star in 2021 – and how it retained it a year later. It strikes the right balance of traditional and modern, and also comes with some of the most charming service I’ve experienced in the restaurant world. Just one glimpse at their Instagram page and you’ll see why – I love a restaurant that “teases” its upcoming dishes. If you want to experience the best of what this part of the country has to offer, Roots should be top of your list. I’m enormously jealous of the residents of York, and can only hope Tommy Banks’ next venture lands slightly further south.

Roots York, 68 Marygate, York, YO30 7BH | |

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