This is an un­ex­pected culi­nary tour de force, well worth a longish jour­ney

This week: Mark Palmer vis­its Mel­ton’s, York

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Thebackpage -

‘If it’s the white you’re af­ter, then this is very nice,” says a welluphol­stered women seated on the nextdoor ta­ble but lean­ing our way as though she’s peer­ing over the fence af­ter check­ing that her wash­ing’s dry. She picks up an empty bot­tle of some­thing or other and waves it in the air.

“Oh, yes, very nice,” says one of her three din­ing com­pan­ions.

“Per­fect with the pork belly,” says an­other.

“Well, that’s be­cause it’s the one they rec­om­mend to go with the pork, isn’t it?” says the fourth mem­ber of the party.

“Your first time here?” says the wo­man hold­ing the bot­tle.

Any minute now this help­ful, friendly group will in­vite us to move our ta­ble just that lit­tle bit closer to theirs and we’ll be a merry band of six. To pre­vent this, we must at all costs re­ply to the ‘Your first time?’ ques­tion in such a way that it will cur­tail fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion while not ap­pear­ing to be rude or un­grate­ful for the coun­sel about the wine.

“Yes, it is and we might well try your wine sug­ges­tion,” prob­a­bly would have done the trick. Or, per­haps, just: “Thanks for the tip.” But then my fi­ancée Joanna pipes up with: “Yes, it’s our first time. In fact, I’ve never been to York be­fore. Is this one of your favourite restau­rants?“ And we’re sunk.

No won­der we keep ask­ing our waiter to “give us a few min­utes” be­fore de­cid­ing what to or­der. It’s a full 15 min­utes be­fore we’ve fin­ished hear­ing about their ex­pe­ri­ences of Mel­ton’s (“Best restau­rant in York as long as you don’t mind spend­ing £50 a head for the full works — and by that I mean dessert wine and all”) and learnt about Mel­ton’s Too, a brasserie from the same stable that opened re­cently in the mid­dle of town. It’s all good stuff but I’m long­ing to look at the menu. And I’m get­ting hun­gry.

Mel­ton’s has been around for 17 years. Michael Hjort (pic­tured above with his wife Lucy) is the chef/pro­pri­etor but most of the cook­ing is done by An­nie Prescott, who trained here af­ter leav­ing col­lege and then worked at Le Gavroche for a cou­ple of years be­fore re­join­ing him. I sus­pect that she is the dif­fer­ence be­tween Mel­ton’s be­ing a per­fectly de­cent neigh­bour­hood restau­rant out­side the city’s walls and Mel­ton’s be­ing an un­ex­pected culi­nary tour de force well worth a longish jour­ney.

Cer­tainly, from the out­side, it prom­ises noth­ing spe­cial: a slightly cramped shop front with ta­bles and chairs and win­dows with wood-slat­ted blinds. Inside, there are two big mu­rals, plenty of flick­er­ing can­dles and some un­ob­tru­sive mu­sic. What you lose in so­phis­ti­ca­tion you gain by a com­plete lack of pre­ten­sion. The waiter and wait­ress on duty this Fri­day night are help­ful and very ef­fi­cient.

Sug­gest­ing which wines to choose must be a bit of a theme here. The first page of the list fea­tures sev­eral of the main cour­ses, fol­lowed by a rec­om­men­da­tion of what to drink with them. Not sure about the writ­ing, though. Next to the savoury red pep­per, it says: “This dish is quite com­plex that has creamy cus­tard, spicy and fresh lime. We have cho­sen a New World style wine that is bold and char­ac­ter­ful — like the dish!”

An amuse bouche ar­rives in the form of two Illy es­presso cof­fee cups filled with gaz­pa­cho. Joanna says it’s the best gaz­pa­cho she’s ever had. High praise, but she’s in a re­ally good mood. And so am I, with the pres­sure off now that the chatty ta­ble has paid its bill and bid­den us a hearty farewell. My starter is mus­sels and lin­guine, by which I mean a mound of mus­sels sit­ting on top of just a few mouth­fuls of lin­guine in­fused with a creamy white-wine sauce. It can’t be faulted and nor can Joanna’s goat’scheese souf­flé, which has the tex­ture of whipped cream and comes with rocket, fresh pars­ley, toasted pine nuts and a ter­rific light dress­ing.

I’ve or­dered the pork belly, ac­com­pa­nied not by mashed pota­toes but by baby turnips and pease pud­ding. Thank good­ness, pease pud­ding is still pop­u­lar in the north, es­pe­cially in New­cas­tle, where I’m told by our waiter that you can buy it in tins. I bet it’s good for you. We’ve also gone for the “med­ley of seafish and York­shire crab with black pasta’’, a glo­ri­ous con­sor­tium of chunky salmon, mus­sels, scal­lops, prawns and crab with sev­eral sprigs of fresh dill.

Pud­dings are no less suc­cess­ful. I’m taken by “Bramley ap­ple misu” but am over­ruled and we end up shar­ing “hot choco­late and vanilla-es­presso granita’’, which is a great choice and sees the re­turn of those Illy es­presso cups, now con­tain­ing iced cof­fee sor­bet. Speak­ing of cof­fee, it’s com­pli­men­tary here, as is bot­tled min­eral wa­ter. Which might ex­plain how our bill, ex­clud­ing ser­vice, but with drinks be­fore din­ner, a bot­tle of good wine and three cour­ses, is a very fair £83.10.

The wine? The house whites and reds come in at £15 a bot­tle and you can also get a half-litre carafe for £10. Or­der by the glass and it’s £3.75 a time, al­most half as much as many restau­rants serv­ing noth­ing like such good food. We chose the white Château Morgues du Gres (£21), just as our neigh­bours, and the wine list, told us to do.

By the time we are ready to leave, a new group is oc­cu­py­ing the ta­ble next door. They’re not quite into the swing of things but we are, and it’s tempt­ing to lean over and wave our empty bot­tle at them.

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