This is an unexpected culinary tour de force, well worth a longish journey
This week: Mark Palmer visits Melton’s, York
‘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.