Captain Crab, in the Print Room, with a cheese slice
Bolton Abbey, Skipton, N Yorks BD23 6AJ
01756 718111; thedevonshirearms.co.uk Three course à la carte menu: £65 (about £100 with wine, coffee and
tasting menu: £75 (£125 with matching
Our journey to the Yorkshire Dales had not been an easy or a gracious one, and the effects of six bladdertormenting hours on all the car’s occupants was plain. The woman inside the Satnav had lost her patience. Her querulous tone when I made my 11th emergency U-turn suggested that a 12th would lead her to abandon the niceties, and scream: “Are you actually a simpleton? Did you not hear me say ‘in 400 yards, take the turning on the left?’, or are you doing this to wind me up?”
Meanwhile, the friend who had persistently argued for the car’s abandonment at various railway stations (Kings Cross, Luton and Coventry) fought a brave if futile rearguard to keep the reproving edge from his voice. “Let the train take the strain,” he muttered morosely. “My God,” he exploded, belatedly recalling who had fronted that British Rail advertising campaign, “I’m quoting Jimmy Savile approvingly. This is what you’ve reduced me to.”
All in all, it was not in the sunniest of moods that we arrived at the Devonshire Arms, perched on the edge of the Dales in 30,000 acres of its own land. I mention this by way of full disclosure, lest irritability affected the old critical faculties; for neither the hotel nor its feted restaurant matched our expectations. For years, an acquaintance who stays there when sitting as a family division judge in Leeds had raved about this flagship of the Duke of Devonshire’s elite hotel armada.
With a long, bungalow-esque modern development tacked on to the original house, it is no Chatsworth. But the scenery is gorgeous, a vast log fire in the lobby thaws glacial spirits, and the staff are expert and friendly in the corporate: “Can I get anything for you two gentlemen yourselves this evening for yourselves?” manner. We liked the comforting solidity of a bar which could, with the lone addition of a crystal radio cabinet, moonlight as an Agatha Christie set.
The major disappointment – and it was major, this, after all, being a restaurant review – was the restaurant. Named after a clan of earls who married into the Devonshires in the 18th century, Burlington feels slightly but naggingly misguided.
Initially, we were seated in what struck us as an overflow area by a jolly manager who, despite the empty tables we could see through a doorway, insisted the main bit was full. He quickly and elegantly repented, and led us within. “This is a very brown room,” observed my friend. “Very male.” It is a shade masculine, albeit in a delicate, post-Regency way, with a plethora of ancient architectural drawings joining the portraits on mushroom-coloured walls.
The Burlington recently hired a very young and promising head chef. The 25-year-old Adam Smith evidently has flair and ability, though we sensed a serious talent shackled to a cuisine – a kind of neo-nouvelle, with weeny servings and the emphasis on aesthetics – that suits neither him nor the setting. This is clever, artful, prissy food of the kind that invariably leaves you craving a Big Mac, when the building and location call for vibrancy and earthiness. My friend’s crab salad came in pancake form, to resemble Vietnamese summer rolls, encircled with outmoded blobs of green and pink. The crab was impeccably fresh, and the taste light and zingy (too zingy, in fact, thanks to domineering lemon zest), though this was a weirdly unseasonal dish for a dank and misty winter night. My foie gras terrine (or “goose liver” as the menu put it in a stab at cutting through the “faine daining” shtick with a bit of Yorkshire plain speaking) was velvety and delicious, and came with an effete, show-offy piece of gingerbread styled after a chef’s hat.
If the lead attraction here is a capacious, fantastically wellpriced and fabled wine list, the runner-up is the basic quality of ingredients. The meat and much of the veg are farmed on the grounds, and it shows. Beer-fed Dexter beef, with turnip and a mushroom purée, was excellent, though the jus had been overreduced, and was too intense. “This beef is excellent,” said my friend, “but the portion… Not that this nouvelle revival isn’t hugely exciting…” My peppered venison, accurately cooked to a ruby red finish, worked well with truffle shavings and chestnut, but clashed with the sweetness of a spongy glazed pear. If you brag about the reliance on fresh, local produce, do not serve pear in December.
“I’m going straight for the cheese,” said my friend, “and I’m treating it like a second main course.” We can all dream. The slices were cut impossibly thin, as if to challenge the laws of physics. But the cheeses – particularly a local cheddar and an époisses (the latter so viciously pungent that it is a crime in France to take it on public transport) were superb.
For all that, it had been only a partially satisfying dinner, though over the coffee my sweet-natured friend appointed himself lead counsel for the defence. “I really enjoyed that, and you’re not to upset the staff,” he said.
“But 10 minutes ago, you said the food was British Airways first class.” “I did, and I loved it.” “So you’d come back?” “It’s an absolute delight. But if I brought the missus here for the weekend on the back of a rave review from you,” he concluded, “I would kill you, very slowly, with my bare hands.”