One of my best ever memories, food-related and more generally, is of the lunch I ate after finishing my Finals exams at Oxford. I emerged, blinking confusedly, from the dark, imposing exam hall into a haze of summer sunlight, to be scattered with confetti and presented with champagne bottles (strictly no drinking from them in the street, though, as I soon found out when a surly Proctor made a beeline for me) by my friends. Slightly dazed, my head still reeling with quotations from Thomas More and Philip Sidney, I sat down to a lovely summer lunch at one of my favourite restaurants in Oxford. Attached to the hotel near my college, it was an understatedly glamorous establishment, offering beautifully presented fine-dining style food at reasonable prices, and the place I would always go for a treat, either with visiting parents or that momentous occasion of exam completion. I credit the success of that lunch largely to the restaurant, and it still remains in my mind to this day.
Given that the end of my PhD is hazily, uncertainly in sight – the sheer, constant mental exhaustion and frayed nerves are a classic symptom of this state of being, I’ve realised – I’ve been thinking about where to go with my parents when I finally graduate. This occasion will be all the more important as I’ve never actually gone through a graduation ceremony, despite this being my third degree. Don’t ask why. I don’t really have an answer. Absent-mindedness, perhaps, or a dislike of silly hats. I’ve been seeking that Oxford experience again in York, but York is rather a wasteland when it comes to upmarket, fine-dining establishments. It has lots of great places where you can get cheap dumplings, pizza or curry, but nowhere that would feel like a real treat.
Yet last Saturday I was given the chance to experience the food at D.C.H, restaurant of the Dean Court Hotel opposite York Minster. Located on a lovely corner opposite the imposing, ornate church and a few metres from the city walls, the restaurant is a pleasant spot with a simple, spacious interior and great views of the heart of the city centre. Its menu is one of the most interesting I’ve seen in York and it feels like a real treat destination, with attentive staff, little perks like delicious complimentary fresh bread (served warm in a basket, with a choice of brown, white or onion) and creamy salted butter, a comprehensive wine list and immaculate, artistic food that’s both interesting and delicious. If you’re remotely interested in food, its provenance, unusual ingredients and flavour combinations, you’ll love the carefully created menu, but if you just want somewhere a little bit fancy to take a date, your parents or yourself, it’s perfect.
The menu is quite short (about 4-8 choices for starters and main courses), but it’s clear from the descriptions that there’s a lot of attention to detail. We began with the duck liver parfait, a luscious slab of rich, slightly bitter, voluptuously smooth mousse accentuated with crunchy pistachios and brightened with slivers of burnt orange (a pretty and unusual touch), confit radish, micro herbs and a vivid green, zingy Thai dressing. It was a work of art on the plate and a beautiful thing to eat, the creamy duck balanced by the zesty citrus flavours. It’s hard to beat a good duck pâté, but it’s often served quite simply with bread and maybe chutney. I much prefer this approach, where the parfait serves as an unctuous, decadent bed for a bright interplay of flavours.
We also tried the beef short rib, mainly because the menu stated that it had been cooked for 72 hours, which basically means it’s going to be about 72% better than any average starter. It came smothered in buckwheat honey and perched atop a tangle of kohlrabi, but laid gently across the top was a feather-light sliver of Tete de Moine cheese, a gorgeously caramel-scented Swiss cheese that reminded me of Gruyere. The combination of the melting, dark, rich beef with the nutty cheese has imprinted itself so firmly on my consciousness that I’m desperate to recreate it. It was probably the best part of the entire meal, an umami-lover’s dream and the ultimate omnivore’s starter. There was just enough of it to whet the appetite without being too heavy. I’m always a fan of slow-cooked beef, but this is probably the best manifestation I’ve ever had. It’s quite hard to make slow-cooked meat look refined, but this succeeded.
The D.C.H. main courses are a visual delight, a tantalizing interplay of different, unusual components. My wild sea trout, beautifully crispy-skinned, came accompanied by crunchy little gnocchi, coconut shavings, foraged sea vegetables, a seared scallop and a sweet, Thai-flavoured coconut and lemongrass sauce. It was an unusual fusion combination, the briny sea vegetables working wonderfully with the sweet sauce and the coral flesh of the fish, although the gnocchi seemed a little out of place with the Asian slant of the rest of the dish. The fish was a little on the dry side, possibly a minute or so overcooked, but the thick sauce made up for the texture, as did the perfectly caramelized scallop. The rump of lamb came beautifully pink, accompanied by sweetbreads, baby vegetables, and a rosemary butter puree and garlic emulsion. It was a pretty, fresh homage to the Yorkshire sheep, artfully drizzled with the puree and full of sweet, herby flavours.
The portions are well judged, allowing you to enjoy the starters and save room for dessert, and I love the amount going on with each dish: the menu also features herb-fed chicken breast with black pudding, mushroom, honey-glazed black carrots, home-made ricotta and madeira jus, or local wild nettle risotto with goat’s cheese and candied hazelnuts, alongside a slow-cooked ox cheek which I imagine would replicate the beef rib triumph of the starter section. They offer some lovely-sounding steaks, served with confit tomato, button mushroom duxelle, hand-cut chips and watercress, with a variety of sauces (Harrogate blue cheese being my favourite). As someone who has recently developed a passion for foraging (read: I often go out looking like a crazy bag lady, armed with freezer bags, ready to pick a few branches of blackberries in the park or a fringe of black pepper dulse from a rockpool wall), I love the inclusion of foraged ingredients (their local forager, Alysia, is even credited on the menu), as well as the use of local, seasonal meat and fish where possible – the wild sea trout and nettles were a pleasing nod to seasonality.
For dessert, I tried the intriguing wild tangerine root and chocolate torte with pink peppercorn ice cream. I like to think I know a lot about food, but I’ve never heard of a wild tangerine root, let alone found it in my chocolate cake. I’m not sure if it was the tangerine root or ample amounts of cream and butter that make this cake so rich, but either way it’s a giant slab of truffley, melt-in-the-mouth decadence that you may well be unable to finish. It comes with a very refreshing, herbal-scented peppercorn ice cream, though, which cuts through the richness nicely, although I think a few berries would be a good idea alongside to break the chocolatey monotony a little. I felt a little queasy after polishing off such a huge amount of dense, cocoa-rich cream (but that’s probably my fault for finishing it all).
If you’re keen for something lighter, I can highly recommend the delicate globes of white chocolate mousse sitting in a bowl of vivid berry consommé, scattered with shards of crisp sugar, freeze-dried strawberries and an utterly gorgeous, pearly-white elderflower sorbet with a creamy, smooth texture that worked perfectly against the zesty berry flavours of the dish and the chocolate. Although also indulgent, this was much lighter and more summery. Desserts can sometimes feel like an afterthought in fine-dining restaurants, but it was clear that real care had been taken here: like the main courses, each dish is a beautiful medley of unusual flavours and textures. If you’re looking for something simpler, they also offer a range of ice creams and sorbet, a ‘celebration of British cheeses’, or a pistachio and polenta cake with hot chocolate sauce and coffee ice cream. After-dinner coffee or tea comes with beautiful little petit-fours, which is always a nice touch, particularly if you haven’t had dessert but still fancy a cube of velvet-smooth fudge or a melting truffle to satisfy your sweet tooth.
I’m often sceptical when it comes to hotel restaurants: they can often be overpriced and underwhelming, designed to fleece a captive market, and for this reason are sometimes sadly underlooked. But a visit to the D.C.H. restaurant is absolutely worth the money. It’s not cheap – three courses will probably set you back £30-40, but the food is genuinely interesting and delicious enough to merit the setback, and they also offer a very reasonable set lunch menu with many of the same dishes as on the à la carte. There is also an afternoon tea menu, which I'm desperate to try (although its status as a legitimate 'meal' is hotly contested, afternoon tea is my favourite eating occasion of all, particularly in the fancy setting of a hotel). Dining there is a lovely experience that feels like much more of a treat than many places in York. The only thing I’d change is the music, a rather eclectic blend of pop ‘classics’ that doesn’t quite fit with the refined tone of the food. But the menu is excellent and interesting, and a real treat for keen cooks and food-lovers as well as those seeking artistic, sophisticated sustenance within the city walls.
I dined as a guest of the management at D.C.H; all opinions are my own.