The dishes may be challenging and the carrots may require a leap of faith, but Elaine Lemm finds the adventurous are rewarded at Norse.
Earlier this year I reviewed Baltzersen’s cafe in Harrogate. For those who remember the review, I was enamoured by the food, the staff and the setting. Their scraped back simplistic Nordic-influenced food had blown gusts of fresh air into the Yorkshire food scene. Back then, the team had announced their intention of opening Norse, an evening restaurant based in the same space but with a different menu. They did, and though I was tempted all summer to visit, I resisted. After five months I felt it was time as they should be well bedded in, and they are.
Little has changed since my last visit. The white brick-tiles, industrial light fittings, wooden tables and bench seating remain. The squashy sofas have gone to make more room for money-turning tables. The open door to the washing up area, which on my last visit annoyed me, was now firmly closed.
The understated jeans and lumberjack shirts of the hipster-bearded young waiting staff may be a little off-putting if formality is your measure of a good gaff. Don’t let it. These guys know their stuff and are more than willing to share it. They work the room as well as any pro I have seen down the years; they don’t miss a beat.
As with all aspects of the Baltzersen’s-Norse offering the menu does not stand by convention. Abandoning the starters-mains-puds approach, they offer instead a succinct, highly seasonal selection of just eight savoury dishes and two desserts – their words not mine. There is a weight to the menu, with lighter offerings at the beginning moving on to heftier fare at the end.
Short as the menu is, the content is heavy and takes some reading. This approach was not welcome across the table, and was initially dismissed as “having nothing he liked”. The less familiar ingredients popping up – frozen salad, toasted hay oil, whey, curds and chervil root to name but a few – threw him off the scent of a good dinner.
However, a little prodding and poking through the details revealed a braised pig’s cheek, goats cheese, Trompette de Mort (mushrooms) and squash, which could work as a “starter”. Roast best end of lamb was rejected thanks to the tongue alongside; likewise the description of a porridge of mixed grains received a similar grimace. Wild Yorkshire hare almost went the same way because of the accompanying offal, but he gave in and promised to give it a try. For my part, I was pulled in many directions by the intriguing menu with its teasing and tempting combinations. I finally settled on a poached baby globe artichoke, pickled pear with Blacksticks blue, chervil root puree and chilled chervil broth as the first dish. For seconds, pan-fried plaice, Scottish mussels, salsify and sea veg with burnt cream and smoked Jerusalem artichoke.
Surprisingly, given the swerve away from convention, they pepper the meal with tasters from the kitchen. Drinks came with a dish of mixed toasted grains (I swear I heard the words “budgie food” from across the table) and two tiny shots each of homemade snaps, one an apple gin, the other an aromatic hazelnut vodka. The alcohol I sipped, the sweet nutty grains I devoured. Even the sceptic across the way joined in and I believe rather enjoyed them.
All four of our chosen dishes were faultless. Highlights being the deep-flavours of the sticky, glutinous pig’s cheek. The artichoke was poached to perfect tenderness and the chervil puree and broth so delicious the plate was mopped dry. Plaice cooked as here was hailed the best ever from me. The hare was dark and broody and packed a gamey punch which was offset with smoked bacon and unctuous, creamy mash to soak up all the juices. A carrot cooked in duck fat, it must be said looked a little off putting on the plate and appearance-wise upset the balance of the whole dish. Do not, I repeat, ever take this off the menu. The long slow-cooked carrot may look odd but the borderline burnt skin when split open oozed an unbelievably sweet creamy interior.
Faultless as the cooking was, startling as some of the presentation was (I refer back to the carrot) the only downside was the food came on cold plates. Why, when attention to detail is so meticulous, would this happen? It takes so little to warm them through and the heat makes all the difference to the food and the enjoyment of eating it at a decent temperature. That’s my rant over.
Only two puds on offer and again, brace yourself if sticky toffee pudding is your want. The offering of a damson, raw Harrogate honey, sacred gin compote, caraway and duck egg custard, oat and juniper crumble with brown butter proved too much off the path for across the table. Instead a Crown Prince squash cream, almond crumb and praline, blueberries and blackberry sorbet may have caused a slight frown but resulted in huge smiles. It was a simply delicious affair of cream, texture, and flavour. Very clever cooking.
It may have been a trust process for my other half but by the end of this meal he was smitten; so much so we are taking the whole family back there very soon. For me I could only praise his willingness to trust and for Norse in the triumph of their cooking. Just, please warm the plates next time.
• Norse, 22 Oxford Street Harrogate HG1 1PU. 01423 202363, Tues to Sat, 6-9pm. Dinner with two glasses of wine each £80. Tasting menu of six courses £39.00 per person.