Tommy Banks’ new restaurant is eccentric but brilliant, earning a rare four and a half stars
Michael Deacon at Roots of York
TRIPADVISOR MUST BE a nightmare, if you run a restaurant. So much to worry about. Your average star rating, and its impact on your bookings. The threat of fake one-star reviews, written by the owners of rival restaurants. And, of course, the threat of genuine onestar reviews – deserved or undeserved. Every week, judgments of your restaurant are being published online in their hundreds, for all the world to read. And if those judgments are unfair, or misguided, or spiteful… There’s not a lot you can do. Your restaurant, your business, your very livelihood is in the hands of untraceable pseudonymous critics who, for all you know, may never even have set foot in your premises. The paranoia must gnaw at you like a rat at a rope.
I do sympathise. Personally, however, I love Tripadvisor. Mainly because it takes power out of the hands of dreadful people like me.
Put it like this. If you think it’s hard running a restaurant in the age of Tripadvisor, imagine what it was like before. In those days, critics from newspapers wielded terrifying and unconscionable power – because theirs were the only opinions in town. The verdict of some yawning broadsheet bloviator could make or break your business. In fact, even once Tripadvisor was up and running, AA Gill found himself confronted in the street by a man who jabbed at him with a furious finger, shrieking, ‘You owe me £500,000! You closed down
my restaurant!’ To which AA Gill calmly replied that it wasn’t his fault the food was disgusting.
This may well have been true (I don’t know which restaurant it was, and in any case it closed many years before I started reviewing). But even so: I’d hate to think some footling critique of mine could cause people to lose their jobs. What a horrible, and wildly disproportionate, responsibility. Which is why I’m so grateful for Tripadvisor. Thanks to it, the power to wreck a restaurant is no longer the preserve of a pompous, spoilt, unfeeling few. It is, instead, the preserve of the pompous, spoilt, unfeeling many. Which, if nothing else, is a lot more democratic.
Anyway, Tripadvisor reviews can often be helpful, and celebratory. Last year, its users decreed that the very best restaurant in the world – the whole world – was The Black Swan: a little country pub in the North Yorkshire village of Oldstead. The place already had a Michelin star, but a Tripadvisor Award, something bestowed by ordinary customers, people who have paid to eat your food, rather than been paid to: that must feel special. If I ran a restaurant, that’s the prize I’d want most. No matter how much of my time I spent grumbling about the site in general, and telling myself that all the bad reviews I’d received must have been fake.
The good news is that the chef at the Black Swan, Tommy Banks, has now opened a second restaurant, this time in York city centre. It’s called Roots, and the food is made from the produce of the Banks family farm at Oldstead.
The atmosphere at Roots is easy and relaxed, with a comforting backdrop of Dad FM soft rock (I heard REM three times in 90 minutes). The food, though, is bristlingly imaginative, at times displaying Willy Wonka levels of ingenuity. My bread and crackers, for example, came not only with butter but a little pot of freshly made custard. Seriously: custard. Then again, it didn’t taste as sweet as normal custard. Normal custard probably wouldn’t have worked quite so well. So don’t take this as a cue to tip a carton of Ambrosia on your Kingsmill.
If you think bread with custard sounds odd, though, wait till we get on to the eel doughnuts. Yes, actual bits of eel stuffed inside three actual doughnuts, each perched on a bitingly sweet squidge of apple purée. My tastebuds didn’t know whether they were coming or going. Mad, but lovely.
Also among the starters were sour pea falafels, served with dreamy whipped pork fat. The pork fat tasted like cream. No, not cream: cream’s evil brother. Speaking of fat, another starter, the beetroot, had been cooked for four hours solid in beef fat, then served with cod roe, goat’s curd, and tiny seed crackers (the crackers jutting out of the top of the beetroot at intervals, like the plates on a stegosaurus’s back). I wasn’t quite so keen on this one. For all its technical extravagance, and pretty presentation, flavour-wise it was the dish with the least pizzazz.
Great main, though: ox cheek, with cheese, cauliflower and crispy kale. The meat could not possibly have been softer. Never mind falling off the bone. It practically fainted.
Pudding was bubbly white chocolate with lemon verbena and a wobbly blob of panna cotta. Shiveringly cold, a real teeth-freezer, and the lemon as sharp as a pin.
I loved both it and Roots in general. For Tommy Banks, another winner. I’ve given it four and a half stars out of five – which, at the time of writing, happens to be the average score it’s getting on Tripadvisor, too. If any of those reviewers are fakes, they’re highly discerning fakes.
The pork fat tasted like cream. No, not cream: cream’s evil brother
Above Ox cheek, cauliflower and kale. Below White chocolate, Douglas fir and lemon verbena