Heston Blumenthal is famous for much: for snail porridge and Sound of the Sea – complete with iPod; for the restaurant for years rated best in the world and for a sticky TV makeover job of the roadside Little Chef chain; for molecular cuisine and fantastic feasts. But I suspect his enduring legacy to British cuisine may just be the fried potato heaven that is his triple cooked chip.
Until a month ago, if you wanted the chance to sample these gorgeous specimens you would have had to go to his pub the Hinds Head or more expensively to the Fat Duck at Bray where dinner costs £180 a head and a table takes at least two months to secure.
Now, one of Heston’s disciples has arrived in North Yorkshire and has brought along the secret of those ultra crisp chips and is selling bowls of them at a giveaway £2 a pop. Our new benefactor is Graham Kirk who did time at Blumenthal’s pub the Hind’s Head and at Sir Michael Parkinson’s pub, with its Michelin-starred kitchen near Maidenhead. Now Kirk, with his Yorkshire-born fiancée Clare, owns the Appletree Inn at Marton. Of the various Yorkshire Martons this is the one near Pickering, on the River Rye in the quiet countryside behind Castle Howard and FlamingoLand.
Some will remember the Appletree as a popular, if over-aspirational dining pub, run by TJ and Mel Drew. When they moved on, the whole place lay depressingly empty for two and a half years. Somewhere along the line the dining room got knocked down. One more dead village inn.
But then along came the Kirks. They’ve spruced it up and consolidated the dining area around a splendid fireplace. So far, so good. Their next investment should be to strip out more tired remnants such as the heavy faux beams, dreary panelling, dated furniture and the outbreaks of Artex.
Still, the menu reads well enough with a sensible choice of six starters and six mains. I liked the idea of potted chicken livers and smoked bacon with whisky and prunes but went for something lighter, a salad of Pickering watercress, red chard leaves, walnuts and Yorkshire blue cheese. At £5.95 it sounds pricey for something you might throw together at home and while it was simplicity itself - leaves, walnuts, tangy blue cheese - it had been assembled carefully and beautifully. The walnuts were nicely toasted, the leaves well dressed and with just the right ratio of cheese to leaf, it was perfect for a light summer starter.
We also had the cauliflower soup. It was pleasantly creamy and given crunch by a handful of toasted almonds, a hefty toasted crouton with Ryedale cheese and a swirl of olive oil. A good pinch of salt – none on offer on the table – plus a more generous glug of oil would packed a more memorable punch.
The pick of the mains were guinea fowl, sausage, plaice, smoked haddock and steak with prices ranging from £13 to £20. Lunchtime sees a pared down menu or sandwiches and salads. We went for the smoked haddock and the rump steak with those triple cooked chips. The fish was a thick fillet, crisp-coated and served with bubble and squeak and Kirk’s own-made baked beans. The haricot beans needed longer in the pan to make them more giving. The composition felt carb-heavy but it was all suitably comforting.
The rump steak was fine, too, but had to take second billing to the chips. They were hot and very, very crisp. Better still they stayed crisp and if you don’t know how difficult that is, think how many chips you’ve had that start off crisp but end up soggy by the time you’ve got halfway through your steak or fish. Inside, they were soft and yielding. I’m pretty sure they were the best chips I’ve ever eaten. We wolfed them down.
The secret? Blumenthal has written at length about how it’s done: it involves oil, steam, pressure and temperature but in the end comes down to boiling, chilling, frying, cooling and frying again. Of course, it’s far too much of a faff at home but the method is perfect for a restaurant kitchen.
Pudding was another high point. Kirk has broken rank with the old faithfuls of gastropub menus and comes up with the likes of a seasonal damson crumble; a raspberry jam sponge and a delectable-sounding chocolate pudding with dark rum, honey, and chocolate coated coffee beans. Our two spoons shared the rose wine jelly with summer fruits and brown bread ice cream. It was pretty as a picture: deep translucent red with raspberries and blueberries in the base served with a scoop of delicious ice cream and a tiny pot of poached summer fruits.
So, good pudding, good starters, pretty good mains. Great chips. Good news all round not least that a flat-lining village pub has been resuscitated. The Appletree is back on the map. Next, to compete at the top level in the crowded world of stylish North Yorkshire dining pubs, the restaurant area needs some serious design expertise; on the early evidence, Graham Kirk’s cooking deserves it.
The Appletree Country Inn, Marton, Nr Sinnington, North Yorkshire YO62 6RD. Tel: 01751 433189. www.theappletreecountryinn.co.uk. Price: Three-course dinner for two including coffee, wine and service: £82.