Tuesday, 16 August 2011

My first Michelin-starred meal

"Michelin". It's funny how one word can possess the power to make or break a career, to spell the beginning or the end of business, to bring boom or bust. As an avid follower of everything gastronomic, it's a word I find myself reading a lot, to the point where it really means very little. "Michelin star" is bandied around so much these days (numerous friends of mine in Oxford are adamant that their college is the only one with a "Michelin-starred chef" - apparently one lone chef bearing this accolade has been doing the rounds, pinched from Christ Church by Univ before being passed on to Trinity, etc. etc.) that I bet few people realise that the original Michelin guide, published over a hundred years ago, was designed by the Michelin tyre company to help drivers maintain their cars, find accommodation, and eat well whilst touring France. It wasn't all about restaurants back then: the guide included listings for filling stations, mechanics and tyre dealers, along with local prices for fuel, tyres and repairs. It wasn't until 1926 that the guide started to mark outstanding restaurants with a star, and the 1930s that two- and three-star listings came into being. I won't bore you for too long on the history, though - if you're interested, click here. Essentially, one Michelin star means "very good cuisine in its category"; two mean cuisine worth a detour, and three, "exceptional cuisine worth a special journey". 

I don't think I quite played by the rules here, because the first Michelin-starred restaurant I attended was approximately two hundred miles from my house, thereby definitely involving a "special journey", yet it only had one star, not three. I hasten to add that I didn't travel two hundred miles simply for a good eating experience (though knowing me, it's not out of the question); I happened to be on holiday only five miles from the delightful Yorke Arms in north Yorkshire. My culinary radar was going mad, obviously sensing the wealth of edible potential in its vicinity, and I couldn't leave without seeing what all the fuss was about. I've read and heard so much about Michelin-starred chefs and their food (in fact, I even worked for one once) that I found it a bit hard to believe I'd never tried it before. The Yorke Arms, having recently had a great review in the Telegraph, seemed a good place to start, set in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside rather than some grim, smog-saturated highway in London.

The Yorke Arms is both a hotel and a restaurant, though it clearly prides itself on being the latter, referring to itself as a "restaurant with rooms" on the website. Frances Atkins is the head chef, awarded a Michelin star in 2003. The restaurant was also awarded "best game restaurant" by the Sunday Times in 2007, which excites me more than its many other accolades because of my fetish for all things wild and shootable. Unfortunately it wasn't really game season when I visited, which just means I'll have to go back. What a shame. 

The 18th century building is in Ramsgill, a charming village in Nidderdale that nestles amongst the dramatic dales landscape. It feels rather like a very posh gastropub as you walk in, with wood panelled walls and white linen, though we ate unexpectedly on the outside terrace. It was a lovely bright courtyard, heady with the scent of the lavender and rosemary growing in pots on the wall, next to a stream beyond which lay the vegetable garden (we saw one of the chefs go out and pick some vegetables while we were eating, which was rather nice and authentic). Apart from an onslaught of hoverflies and some slightly uncomfortable chairs, the setting was lovely. We had a quick peek around the vegetable garden afterwards, and also found the restaurant's egg suppliers (as well as some of the largest swans I've ever seen; so large that when I could only see their necks amongst the greenery, I got excited and declared that they were ostriches).

However, the setting is clearly not what earned the Yorke Arms its Michelin star, so I won't bore you any more with that. I perused the menu. Nothing particularly new to me, in its style of listing a couple of key ingredients followed by a highly simplistic, single-word description of their accompaniments. Something similar happened on the menu of a Gordon Ramsay restaurant I went to in February; the uber-trendy Polpo in Soho likes to do it too. I sometimes think there should be an internet "Michelin translator" that you type your meal into and watch as it emerges in posh-restaurant jargon. Roast beef with all the trimmings would become "Beef. Batter. Jus. Carrots." Lasagne might be "Mince. Pasta. Cheese and milk infusion. Tomato". It seems a hallmark of above-average restaurants to try and boil their dishes down (not literally) to the key components. Michelin menu minimalism.

Despite this, I wanted to eat it all. The sparse description left me intrigued and salivating, which I imagine is the idea. Ordering the main course was easy - although I was torn between the venison and the sea bass, the mention of lobster swung it for me. If I was going to be paying thirty-five pounds for my lunch, I'd make sure it contained some expensive components. Choosing the starter was almost as simple, though the cauliflower ravioli sounded almost as enticing as the seared tuna. I just love the texture of good, squashy ravioli. But the notion of a "tuna kiev" was simply too exciting to pass up, particularly as my boyfriend had eaten a chicken kiev in front of me the evening before while I tucked into a plate of salad (like some clichéd scenario out of a bad rom-com), and left me with serious cravings for oozing garlic butter. Not that one really needs a specific incident to instil serious cravings for garlic butter. As someone with a chronic case of menu-indecision, I was delighted when I was able to choose my dessert without any reservations whatsoever - I find chocolate a bit boring and I absolutely adore gooseberries, so that was that (the poor cheese plate didn't even get a look-in).

Before I could revel in my tuna kiev and native lobster, however, I had a couple of amuse-bouches to work my way through. I've only had such a thing once, in a pretentious restaurant in Oxford that I was "reviewing" for the student paper (oh, how I miss those days). These were infinitely better. First up came a little parmesan tart. You know those classic egg custard tarts? The ones you can buy in supermarkets that have a perfect smooth circle of yellowy egg custard in the centre adorned by a neat scattering of nutmeg or cinnamon? These were like that, only bite-sized, and savoury. They were absolutely incredible. I actually just wished, at that moment in time, I could cancel my kiev and my lobster and just request another plateful of parmesan tarts. The crumbly pastry was slightly sweet, which made the most amazing contrast with the deeply savoury, quivering custard centre. I always think there's a slightly sweet quality about good parmesan, reminiscent of really dark chocolate, and this tart exploited it perfectly. 

I feel I should divert from my recollections here to mention quickly that I don't normally photograph food in restaurants. It's one of my absolute pet hates, something I feel quite strongly about. I sometimes google a restaurant before visiting, just so I can gauge whether it's worth parting with my hard-earned cash or whether I'll be sorely disappointed (food-related disappointment is not quite as bad as money-related disappointment, but combine the two and you have a potently tragic mix). I like to read fellow bloggers' reviews, because they're often far more down to earth than those of the upper echelon of restaurant critics, who are used to much more expensive and pretentious fare than I am, and may be highly critical of something that I might actually quite like. But what absolutely spoils everything for me is when I see the grainy, camera-phone photos that the blogger has posted alongside his or her review. I grant that this isn't always the case, but generally if you're taking photos of food in a restaurant, the lighting is going to be terrible, you're probably not fully equipped with flash, lenses and tripod, and consequently the food is never going to look as appetising as it did in the flesh. It's like those awful touristy restaurants you find clustered over Europe, that proudly display hideous, over-saturated, over-exposed photos of their fare outside as if to entice diners, when really all they do is remind one of a kebab van. Photos of food outside a restaurant or on a restaurant menu make me walk away.

For me, part of the excitement of eating out is ordering something and then being pleasantly surprised as the words on the menu are transformed into 3D, into a wonderful edible delight. Not knowing what it's going to look like is all part of the fun; it makes the dish so much more appetising and exciting when it finally arrives. Looking at someone else's dark, blurry photos of every single dish totally ruins the magic. Especially if the dishes are fairly basic-looking, like a salad or pizza. If there's a spectacular-looking dessert that just begs to be captured on film then fair enough, but I really don't appreciate an onslaught of average photos when I just want an idea of whether a restaurant is nice or not.

As I said, this isn't always the case. I've read some bloggers' restaurant reviews where the photos have been excellent, often because the meal took place during the day and the lighting was good. But generally I prefer reviews that let the words speak for themselves, and leave the magic there. However, I completely went against all my own principles this time, mainly because we were sitting outside and the lighting was perfect, and because my boyfriend and I both had our posh cameras with us. That and the food just looked so beautiful I had to get the camera out. Without the photos, in fact, this post would probably not exist, as I've forgotten a lot of the components of my meal (there were about 20 on each plate) and therefore would give an inaccurate representation of the Yorke Arms's food. So I just thought I'd excuse myself, if you too hate seeing photos of restaurant food on blogs. Hopefully these are slightly better than the usual blurry iPhone specimens.

Next up came a small square of truffled goats' cheese with macerated cherries, which explained why I'd been inhaling the delicious scent of truffles for the last few minutes. Cherry and goats' cheese is a combination I've been meaning to try for a while (and did recently, but that's an upcoming post), and I'm glad I had a Michelin-starred chef to show me how it's done. The creamy, tart cheese was delicious paired with the slightly sharp, sweet fruit, and the shavings of truffle gave it a rich earthiness. I was sceptical about the inclusion of truffle, as expensive ingredients can sometimes seem to be included just for show rather than because they contribute anything, but in this case it worked very well. 

I should also mention the bread basket, which arrived with the amuse-bouche. When asked how my meal was, the first thing I've been telling people about is the bread basket. Perhaps that's ridiculous, seeing as you don't pay thirty-five pounds for a good bread basket, but it really was amazing. There were several different mini rolls as well as a couple of slices of the best sourdough I've ever tasted, dense and flavoursome, reminding me why it's called sourdough. There was a pumpkin roll, a plain white roll, a multigrain roll, and a couple of others which I've shamefully forgotten but I can tell you that they were all absolutely sublime. They were still warm from the oven, and everything a good piece of bread should be; dense yet light, packed with flavour (which you don't often get with bread), and the perfect receptacle for the olive oil and butter we were given alongside. I hoped the waitress would replenish the bread basket once she saw it was empty, but unfortunately this didn't happen. Black marks for not pandering to my carbohydrate-related gluttony.

Finally, the tuna kiev made an appearance. Although to say that is rather misleading, because it implies that the tuna kiev was the star of the show. In fact, it was a small, unassuming little sausage on a plate bursting with colours and textures: gorgeous generous pieces of seared tuna, brown on the outside and rosy in the centre; a fat little langoustine, buttery and sweet; a smattering of earthy lentils and tomato; a piquant mustard-like sauce. The kiev, as it should, emitted a great flood of butter onto the plate as I cut through it, and was wonderful. I'd never have thought of using tuna to make a kiev, but this was deliciously meaty and moist. I imagine it was fresh tuna, perhaps the offcuts, finely minced and seasoned before being inserted with butter and fried. As with the parmesan tarts, I could have just eaten a whole plateful of those. My boyfriend had the duck and foie gras terrine, which was similarly beautifully presented, adorned with little puckered gooseberries and a soldier of spiced bread (see first photo of post).

Had I been unsatisfied with the seasoning of my sea bass, I could easily have rectified the problem by nipping over to the pot plants on the terrace. It was pungent with rosemary and lavender, which sounds odd but worked quite well with the natural sweetness of the fish, a generous thick fillet perfectly cooked with the crispy skin separated and used to sandwich a blob of what seemed to be lavender jelly to the fish. There was the obligatory scattering of vegetables, which really made me think about the attention to detail that goes into these dishes; the few coins of chargrilled courgette were the best tasting courgettes I've ever eaten, incredibly smoky and sweet, nestled underneath a tangle of salty samphire and studded with fresh, slightly crunchy, peas. The rosemary-scented gnocchi were satisfyingly squidgy, although I would have liked a few more. It became apparently halfway through the main course that I was not going to leave clutching my stomach in a sense of chronic repletion; a few more carbohydrates wouldn't have gone amiss, despite the wonderful bread basket. Everything on the plate was just so good that there wasn't enough; I'd have liked a couple of big bowls of those courgettes and that gnocchi. 

That is my only complaint, however, because the fish dish was wonderful. My boyfriend's plate of pig and cow was a rather wintry spectacle, with its dark jus and root veg, but he said the pork was delicious. The liver, however, we both found disgusting. I don't think that's anything to do with Ms Atkins's cooking; I think I just hate liver. It had a disgusting slimy texture and a horrible metallic flavour. I'd never tried it before, apart from in pâté, and figure that if a Michelin-starred chef can't convert me, it's probably something I'm not going to like. Which makes me a little sad, because my list of things I don't eat is very very short (parsnips; yoghurt), and adding something new to it feels a little bit like failure.

Dessert. An ode to the humble and much-maligned gooseberry. There was a square of gooseberry semifreddo, which tasted rather strange, a little too tart, possibly alcohol-ridden, but had an interesting crunchy texture (as the name suggests, it tasted semi-frozen, a bit like biting into a choc-ice straight from the freezer). There was a scoop of what I think was gooseberry sorbet, which was delicious, light and frothy. There was a delicious buttery, caramelly sesame tuile, ideal for scooping up the last of the sorbet. There were the same little raisin-like gooseberries as on the duck terrine starter. There was also a truly wonderful gooseberry frangipane tart. Once again, though, the portion sizes disappointed. I wanted a huge great wedge of that tart and a giant bowl of that sorbet with many many sesame tuiles. Instead, I practically licked the plate clean, to the amusement of the waitress. "Oooh, not much left there!" she chuckled, as she removed our plates. 

The simply-titled "plate of chocolate" was a thing of beauty, a veritable playground for chocoholics. There was a mini chocolate fondant with an oozing, molten centre; a teardrop filled with feather-light chocolate ganache and topped with candied orange peel; a deep, dark mini chocolate tart with a rich, creamy centre; and a tiny trio of mousses that looked a little like a slab of Neapolitan ice cream, but tasted about a thousand times better. I think I would have needed a giant cup of tea to help me polish that off, as I'm incapable of eating chocolate without a hot drink. It was beautiful, elegant, refined, and delicious. Had it been my dessert, again, I would have wanted more of certain items (i.e. a huge plateful of artery-clogging chocolate fondant, possibly with some chocolate mousse on the side).

After all this, we declined tea or coffee (a mistake, quickly realised after seeing the adjacent table's coffee arrive with a beautiful plate of petit fours) and sat in the Yorkshire sunshine (a rare thing) while I contemplated the immense complexity and precision of the food I'd just consumed.

My experience at the Yorke Arms actually left me with a strange sense of relief. Part of me wondered if I've been missing out, rarely visiting fancy restaurants, generally preferring the Italian near my boyfriend's house (amazing crab linguine and apple tart) or staying in to cook. Maybe I should devote a greater part of my budget to trying out restaurants, instead of spending it on weird and wonderful ingredients to use in recipes of my own invention, I thought. I was deeply curious about what was out there, about what this "fine-dining" lark was all about, wondering if maybe I should be aiming to eat on a weekly basis in the kind of restaurants I see reviewed in the national papers. However, I left safe in the knowledge that restaurants like the Yorke Arms are the kind of thing best reserved for very special occasions. I enjoyed my meal immensely, but equally I definitely couldn't eat like that on a regular basis (even if I could afford to). 

First of all, the simple experience of eating everything is just exhausting. There are so many different items on the plate, so many different flavours and textures, and so little of each, that you really have to concentrate to ensure you're getting the maximum out of every single mouthful - because you've only got about five before the plate is empty. It's all so fiddly, with its tiny little blobs of sauce or pieces of courgette. There were about seven peas on my main course. By the time I'd paired a single pea with each of the other components, they were all gone. 

Which brings me to the second thing: I just wanted more of everything. Everything was so damn delicious that I was actually left with a strange feeling of dissatisfaction and longing. I wanted more parmesan tartlets, more lentils with my starter, another of those butter-spurting tuna kievs (or five), many more chargrilled courgette pieces on my main course, a whole bowl of those rosemary gnocchi to accompany my fish, and a giant rustic slice of that gooseberry tart. I know that isn't the point of Michelin cuisine, obviously, but the greedy pig in me was so enamoured with the flavours and textures that I wasn't ready to let go just yet. Unfortunately, I had to, as there was no more. However, the Yorke Arms gets top points for their incredible bread basket. Were it not for that, I would definitely have left hungry. Instead, the bread brought a pleasantly rustic element to the whole eating experience, a reminder that sometimes the simplest things can be the most wonderful, that the chef really does know what people actually like to eat. The parmesan tartlets are another example of that. The flavours were amazing, spot-on, but required rather a lot of concentration to enjoy them fully.

I conclude that eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant is the food lover's equivalent of going to a museum or art gallery. It's a fascinating, almost educative experience. It taught me a great deal about cooking techniques and flavour combinations (the sea bass with rosemary and lavender, for example, was inspired, as was the tuna kiev). It was immensely enjoyable with that slight sense of serious purpose that you get from going to a museum or gallery related to something you're interested in. 

It's not really the sort of place you'd go if you'd had a busy, exhausting day and were ravenous - we had contemplated walking the (hilly) five miles to the restaurant and back, and my boyfriend pointed out that it was a good thing we hadn't, because "we'd get there and all we'd want would be a huge pie and mash". He was right: sometimes you're just so hungry that only a big bowl of pasta, a pie, or a steak will suffice. Sometimes you just want a big rustic pile of creamy risotto, or a loaf of bread and some good cheese; arrangements like these have their own kind of beauty, without the need for fancy splodges of sauce or stacks of seared meat. Michelin-starred food is definitely not satisfying in the way all these things are; it's a totally different kind of experience, less about satisfying hunger than satisfying curiosity. But it's the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion, or to linger (our lunch took over two hours) over excellent food with someone important. The service was excellent, friendly but not intrusive; the setting was beautiful; all the little details had been impeccably thought out. The food, despite all my little quibbles, was incredible. 

I think that's really the root of the problem: I'm just too greedy to find satisfaction in the highly-styled, minimalistic food that characterises the Michelin-starred restaurant. I'd always want more of it.

All that said, it still left me with a pretty big smile on my face. Many thanks to my dear mother for funding such extravagance.

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  1. It was very interesting reading about teh history of so much desired Michelin star.So I ma giving you 5 Dzoli stars for thsi posts.They mean a lot to me and come from my heart:)

  2. I have yet to have the opportunity to go to such a highly rated restaurant, you are so lucky. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Oh. My. God. Looks so good. Please tell me you'll review Fat Duck next? ;)

    Also, you look lovely in that last photo. Your hair is fantastic.

    Also, since you appear to be up that way
    (kind of), there is this tiny cafe in Barnsley that serves really good lunches for a surprisingly low price. Last time we went the two of us had lunch and dessert, a drink a piece, and Patrick had a coffee, for 20 quid. Its in the back of a really expensive clothes shop called Pollyanna, only a few minute's walk from the train station.

  4. Lovely photo, you do look very satisfied!

  5. Ginger - thanks! And I wish...Fat Duck is on my list of "must-go" places, but grappling with the waiting list and the price might take a while...you can be sure that if I ever do manage to go you'll hear about it here! If I'm ever in Barnsley I'll have a look for that cafe.

  6. Fab write up Elly - loving the sound of those parmesan tarts. Let's definitely check out somewhere fancy next time you're in town. We can be proper "ladies what lunch" x

  7. Thanks Rejina! Yes definitely, I had a really rubbish morning in London today and need cheering up. I'll let you know when I'm next around!

  8. Funny, I've never eaten in a Michelin starred restaurant (yet) but what your wrote about the amounts on the plate and the fact that you go there seeking quality and curiosity over quantity satisfaction is exactly what I say when my dad and I have the discussion! He assures me that the price is worth it (generally speaking for good restaurants) and I always argue back that even if it's good, I need a bit more than half of my plate covered in food! That said though, your fish looks amazing as does the chocolate dessert even if I completely agree: you'd need a big mug of tea to enjoy it fully! x

  9. Wow, what a gorgeous array of food and the colour and composition on the plates is just so pretty... Definitely worth photographing (without the need to apologize!) - so glad we got to 'taste' some of this experience with you.


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