The Black Swan, Oldstead
Room with Dinner Tasting Menu and Breakfast - 30th July 2018
After a terrific celebratory meal at Northcote last July Mrs Cheoff and I pondered over a venue which might offer equal, if different, pleasures in a year’s time. We had put ‘The Black Swan’ in pole position when, in October 2017, ‘ShitAdvisor’ announced it as the ‘Travellers Choice Best Fine Dining Restaurant in the World’. Gah! Booking chaos ensued but we calmed ourselves and eventually took the option of a room and a meal which proved more accessible. So we were going to even the score in the Restaurant War of the Roses after all.
On our way to The Black Swan we motored through the Howardian Hills. In 1972 I had already identified another Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and forty-two years ago I managed to become legally designated as her husband. We went down for breakfast in Oldstead on the day itself. So our dinner treat was actually taken on the night before our wedding anniversary. We chose to leave our hosts oblivious to this fact. We like a fuss… but there are limits!
A meal here is so complex that you would be forgiven if you were to get confused when describing it to anyone afterwards. There. That’s my excuse for any omissions or mistakes as I review our own experience. I will spare you that complexity until later.
After reception at the bar we were shown to our room by Emma. There are two Emmas at Oldstead… this one has seen previous in hospitality at York hotels and has a pastry-cheffing partner in the Black Swan kitchen. She talked with real passion about the restaurant team and how they work so happily together. We had plenty of confirmation of that during our stay.
Alternatives are suggested in the website FAQs if you are travelling from distance and want to drink alcohol but ‘Duckendale’ was our comfortable solution to that problem. We had a couple of hours to settle in and try not to get too excited about our meal.
A shave, a shower, a spray of Paul Smith ‘Men’, and a change of clothes for me and I was ready. Convention means that details of Mrs Cheoff’s preparations remain under a D-notice. It goes without saying that she emerged as always... utterly, captivatingly magnificent. A short walk back to the bar and we were embarked upon three hours and a bit more of culinary delight.
The evening had just one mistake. At the start of our meal. In the bar. Made by me. I ordered the Citradora Martini - Lemon Verbena Vodka. As soon as the crab ‘nibble’ arrived I knew that I would struggle to enjoy that drink and food together. I love lemon verbena and it re-appeared very successfully one or two times later on. But my mouthful of sweet, sickly, almost nursery-style cocktail missed the mark by miles. Mrs C insisted I took a sip of her Albury Classic Cuvee NV (North Downs, England) fizz. Absolutely lovely. Increased my resentment to gently bubbling proportions!
Upstairs for the rest of our meal.
The restaurant splits into two rooms plus what seems to be a smaller one which might serve for ‘private’ parties if they were allowed. Although tables of over four are discouraged, we were next to a family of five. The bar downstairs retains the more traditional elements with settles and dark wood in evidence. Upstairs the dining area has a stripped back contemporary look but shelves are dressed with frequent references to the ethos of the Banks family. Demijohns and jars of preserved fruits, vegetables and herbs dot the landscape. Whether fermenting, steeped in syrup or alcohol, they are perhaps for show. Most need a darker, quieter, cooler place to work in.
Tom had greeted us at reception upon arrival. I had wondered if he was Tommy Banks’ brother but James, was ‘working the other room’ when we dined. He and Tom fill the sommelier role. We negotiated a slight modification of the accompanying tasting drinks as experience has told us that we (yes, even me!) might spoil such a meal with too much from the vine. Do not let me put you off from being more indulgent than we were. The wine list is a treat. The experienced or adventurous can devise their own 'wine flight' since all bottles are made available by the glass.
* Just in (03.08.18)... Junior Sommelier, Kaye Turton, appears to have some valuable experience and input for wines as well!
Everything that followed was a riotous success. The attention to detail here is stunning. Humble ingredients shine alongside familiar luxury items. Flavours are distinct and constantly interesting, whether they are making harmonies or creating contrast. Underpinning so many are stocks, broths or dashis which could form a tasting menu on their own. Chef's development kitchen must be an exciting place. Food here has very honest origins but creativity takes over to form complex, challenging dishes. Possibilities have been fully explored and exhausted before a dish is allowed on the menu. Without that there would not be such clarity to each offering. A clarity which gives you the chance to fully appreciate each element. No matter how a dish ends up each part always reflects and respects its roots (literal or otherwise). Take your time... there are rich rewards here.
I have already given notice that Prue Leith is one of my 'Food Heroes'. Those words on the left are quoted from her appearance on 'The Great British Menu' in 2008. On the right, ten years later, she stays true to form in her reaction to Tommy's first book, 'Roots'. Prue has probably got closer to Tommy than most of his guests at The Black Swan. I still contend that a chef can show love through the food they offer in a restaurant. I know that Jay Rayner poo poos the notion (watch out for a future blogpost to discuss that!) but it holds up for me. The wonderfully honest endeavour here to grow, harvest and then to cook using intelligent and creative approaches would fall flat on its face without the love shown by Tommy Banks, the rest of the Banks family and The Black Swan team.
We were given a constant stream of great food and, as keen cooks, wonderful inspiration to use at home.
From mid-September 2018 you will have a menu choice and the chance to book for larger parties at the new Banks venture 'Roots' in York.
No real need to read further. You'll gather that we were very happy indeed with what The Black Swan offers. For those of you with the stomach for it there follows my more specific reaction to individual dishes. I have relied on the photographic efforts of other guests. Links go to their work on TripAdvisor, not mine. What follows shouldn't be spoilers to your dining experience here. The kitchen is far too inventive to rest on their laurels and dishes will change. Except, of course, for continuing offerings of 'Craps'!
And once again, apologies for any misunderstandings and plain old-fashioned mistakes in my descriptions. I'm keen... but I'm not perfect!
OK. You asked for it...
Crab and Wood Sorrel
Gentle sourness of the wood sorrel was just right with the sweet crab. This went in as one mouthful and was the perfect distraction from the faux pas of my drink.
Pea and Elderflower Tart
All the delight of young, freshly podded peas. These had been very slightly softened with blanching and then 'skinned'. There was greater crunch from a wonderfully delicate, crisp case. On the night our tarts were garnished with marjoram flowers.
Grilled Langoustine with Tomato
Gazpacho-glazed and 'barbecued' on a ceramic grill. Knife skills for the brunoise garnish went further than the call of duty. Diced beyond even French Laundry standards! As Diana Henry says, even when entertaining at home, it's small things which make a difference. This was just one of those fine details which are everywhere at The Black Swan.
A brioche dumpling encasing very succulent shredded meat. Lemon verbena in the mayonnaise. This put me in mind of a Chinese (British Chinese) takeaway 'Lemon Chicken'... elevated to dizzy, sophisticated heights.
Sour Bread and Sour Butter
Good, salty, sour bread and butter. Just right for me. Just a touch too saline for Mrs C.
Raw Dexter Beef
Beer-fed beef. That's animal welfare for you! The meat is brushed with a chilli ferment but that, coupled with smoked bone marrow and wild garlic powder, did not distract from the quality of the main element. Silky richness and perhaps the classiest carpaccio I have tasted.
Hefenweizen, Wheat Beer, Bad Seed Brewery (Malton)
Bad Seed Brewery provided the perfect refreshment.
Scallop with Kelp and Chive – Carrot with Turnip and Chive (Mrs C's alternative)
Scallops had no more cooking than the heat of the room and the surrounding broth. A quenelle of soft, braised leeks sent in allium attack... a very mild one. And here was one of those broths or dashis which cannot be produced as an afterthought. Dried shitake mushrooms, mussels and chive oil were just some of the elements which made for an involved and seductive flavour hit.
Albarino, Ferdinand 2015 - Napa, USA
Not currently on the restaurant list. This is aged on lees but retains lovely crisp and zesty qualities and was an understandable partner to the scallops. It would have been good on its own as well!
Potato with Fermented Celeriac
The style of dish which we expect from someone like Richard Bainbridge (chefs do speak to each other, you know!). The potato had been softened, maybe confited, brushed with smoked oil and given a singeing of flame. No matter if Korea or Alsace lay claim to the celeriac. It had been used as a velvety foam which rather undermined any suggestion that this was still based on down-to-earth home cooking. I loved it from the start. Mrs C winced for an instant at the acidity but was soon fully involved with mopping up operations.
Crapaudine Beetroot cooked in Beef Fat
After a letdown beetroot terrine at a reasonably well-known double-starry Oxfordshire eatery (insert grimace and wink emoticons) Mrs C had all faith restored here with the arrival of 'The Meatroot'. The swagger and assurance of this is arrogant and precocious in a chef... as long as you apply nothing but positive connotations to those adjectives. This is the iconic dish which Tommy first showcased on MasterChefUK and entrusted to eventual winner, Kenny Tutt, who tackled it to acclaim. I am determined to do the same... soon. It has been dissected and lauded too much elsewhere for me to do anything else but grin and enjoy the recollection of it.
Max, Miles Mossop 2014 (Stellenbosch, South Africa)
I took the recommended blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot as my travelling companion here. The Bordeaux style hadn't suffered at all on its continental exchange trip. Just right for such a meaty dish.
Herb Fed Chicken with Courgette and Truffle
Not enough elements for a roast dinner here. But that didn't stop this being every bit as rich and crowd-pleasing. The indulgence of truffle was there but even that had to fight with the freshness and vibrancy of the courgette. Oh, yes, the chicken, breast and leg, more than kept pace with the quality and finish on the rest of our plate.
The chicken dish represented the nearest thing to a ‘main’ course and we thought it deserved a drinking partner. But Mrs Cheoff is now less keen on red wines than at any other stage of her drinking years and we wanted to avoid the suggested Pineau d'Aunis from the Loire… even though that offered the very interesting prospect of an unfamiliar, little-used grape.
Chardonnay, Clos de Gat 2014 (Harel, Israel)
It was great to have Tom recommend this white alternative. It was even more lovely to hear my wife inform him that I had chosen the same from the list as we took our pre-dinner drinks. I know two-fifths of bugger all about wine but maybe, just maybe, I’m on the road to learning one more fifth of bugger all on the subject before I’m laid down in American oak.
To pudding and beyond... nearly there!
Gooseberry with Hazelnut
Our first dessert was an ice cream sandwich. Hazelnut parfait and gooseberry ripple between brown sugar ‘wafers’ or biscuit tuiles. The parfait had a lightness which drew things back from gooseberry crumble and custard into more of a milk and cookies vibe. The fact that the whole thing survived several bites without collapsing is an indication of the skill and experimentation which leads to such perfection of texture and finish here.
Strawberries with Sweet Woodruff
Gariguette and alpine strawberries were hidden among various layers of cream, meringue and powders. I think the woodruff infused the cream like a herbal tea but I had already concentrated so hard on everything else that you might excuse me if I fall short of adequate description here. This was an understated dessert but welcome all the same after the buzz of so much before.
1989 Chateau d'Avrille Coteaux de l'Aubance, Loire - Chenin Blanc
We got our Loire wine after all with this dessert. Another regional style which we had not tried previously. This was made in the same year that Mrs Anne Banks gave birth to our head chef. Not over-sweet, very smooth and likely to mature even more with time. What? The wine or the Michelin starred chef? Hah, I'll let you decide.
Coffee and 'petits fours'
Root Vegetable Toast
Panettone. Made in Oldstead. No fruit. Candied root vegetables instead. Very clever. I doubt whether these batons would be ordinary if eaten as made but they were taken one more step towards heavenly. I had seen the hotplate ready for these at the front pass on our way out of the restaurant. French toasts are seldom quite as buttery as this. They often have an uneven finish with occasional evidence of singeing. There was no chance of that happening. I was forced to eat them with as much care and attention as had been lavished upon them by yet another accomplished chef. Attention to detail... makes all the difference.
I am a fuss-pot with coffee but there was no disappointment with the quality of the 'Nessun Dorma' beans. None shall sleep? Well, I'm pretty sure that caffeine delayed things much less than the excitement and satisfaction of our truly great meal.
Breakfast was relaxed; not nearly as complicated as the previous evening but just as satisfying for flavours. Granola according to chef's 'Roots' recipe was included. I'd go full Chantelle Nicholson and add some fennel seeds! My scrambled eggs were topped with smoked eel from Hodgson Fish of Hartlepool. What a lovely change from the 'usual suspects' of salmon and herring and a reminder that great suppliers are available if you can't grow it or make it yourself. I didn't think to prescribe my eggy requirements. They were almost as baveuse as Mrs Cheoff's cheesy omelette. Perfect.
The kitchen garden spread out just behind our room. We explored it after breakfast and saw some of the wealth of riches which are drawn on to inspire and produce the food we had been treated to.
I admit my small crime of taking a leaf and petal of tagetes and trying its tangerine 'tickle'. I admitted as much as we settled our bill and was told that it had been used just days before in a Mackerel, Beetroot(?) and Radish dish. How lovely to have such an ever-changing cycle of growth from which to choose.
Tommy Banks is an exceptionally talented chef but so many others join his endeavour. From the digging of earth to the tweezer delivery of a layer of micro-herbs, The Black Swan is supported by a team of people all on board with something special. In fact they combine to make the Banks family a rather large one. Their efforts gave us an experience of great quality and warmth. Our huge thanks to all concerned.
To finish. Something for Chef Banks... from a few days later.
Some folk find T20 as exciting as this, eh... 😉
(Match not finished between Mr & Mrs Cheoff... currently 42 years not out)