A couple of months ago, I was at the Box Tree’s 50th birthday party. The guest of honour was that most celebrated of celebrity chefs, Marco Pierre White.
You couldn’t miss him, he took up a great deal of space in the bijou Ilkley cottage whose story could easily fill this column. White was there as “ambassador” for the Box Tree – he’s an old mate of the owners Simon and Rena Gueller, but also an “old boy” who came as a young lad from Leeds to skivvy in the kitchen and was so inspired he went off to London to become a chef.
Malcolm Reid and Colin Long were the owners back then. They had been running a snack bar opposite Leeds’ abattoir before buying the “Box Tree Cottage” in 1962 and serving the likes of chicken casserole and sherry trifle. In the years that followed, they upgraded the menu and stocked their little cottage with original art, antiques, plates, teapots, flowery ducks, life-size china dogs, even blackamoors in those non-pc days, until it was so stuffed with stuff, it was like eating inside your gran’s jewellery box The menus were written in French, the cooking was classic haute cuisine, ingredients were from the “international markets” and the wine prices made you blanch.
They certainly did for a Mr Stone who hit the headlines in 1982 after he made a fuss about the way they served his £28 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou – £70 in today’s money. A row broke out and he was escorted off the premises by the police. He took them to court and was awarded costs against the police in what became known as “the £28 plonk case”.
Despite such ructions, the Box Tree was garlanded with two Michelin stars and twice won Egon Ronay’s Best Restaurant in Britain award and then in 1986 they sold up, pot dogs and all, for a reputed £1m.
The restaurant continued for another 15 years or so, gaining and losing its Michelin star by the year. But by the early 90s it was close to bankruptcy, only to be rescued by Ilkley businesswoman Greek-born Helen Avis. But the mercurial Madame Avis couldn’t make it work either, so in 2004 she leased it to the Guellers. It was just what the Box Tree needed. Within nine months, they’d earned back the lost Michelin star and they’ve kept it ever since.
Walking into the Box Tree today, Reid and Long would recognise the little antique bar, the plasterwork ceiling, and the diamond leaded windows that make it cosy or claustrophobic depending on your mood. It’s formal but not grand. It’s never been cheap and still isn’t. The “menu gourmand” is £65, or £ 92.50 with the sommelier’s wine choice. The à la carte is a stiff £55, but a midweek evening at £35, a Friday or Saturday lunch at £25, or our Sunday lunch at £32.50 starts to seem good value for food at this level.
The food, while still peppered with restaurant French – “dodine de canard” this and “en vessie” that – is lighter and simpler than of old. A starter of asparagus with a soft boiled egg that had been slow cooked in a water bath was just perfect. So was a pea “velouté”, a beautiful summer soup with the added kick of grated truffle. “Dodine” was a pressed duck terrine with pistachios and a slab of foie gras. All faultless and delicious.
The same lightness followed through to the main course. Red mullet was served with a perfectly cooked amalgam of potato, aubergine, courgette, olives, quail’s egg and an olive oil dressing. Nothing muddled, no conflicting flavours, just Simon Gueller’s instinctive feel for tastes and textures. The roast beef nod to traditional Sunday lunch was smoothly carried off with beautifully judged sirloin, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. Some would claim red wine sauce is heresy with the roast beef but this was round and rich.
I can’t see the point of a pre-dessert dessert, but I wasn’t going to turn down a shot glass of ‘pineapple soup’ topped with cream and a sprinkle of meringue. Naturally it was sweetly delicious. My delicate little chocolate brownie with some crunchy chocolatey crumbs and morello cherries was no stretch for the kitchen, but it was good nonetheless.
And for the rest. Sommelier Didier de Costa was helpful, charming and brimming with enthusiasm. Service was professional and not over-fussy until coffee and chocolate time when, in a slightly absurd ritual, a wooden box of chocolates was placed on a stand and each chocolate was gravely delivered by tweezer.
So, a terrific meal, beautifully prepared, beautifully presented, light, fresh seasonal. Not a peep of criticism from a table of four. Happy birthday Box Tree, I would raise a glass of Mr Stone’s Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, but the only one I could source was an 18 litre bottle that went at auction for £8,000. Another day…
Box Tree Restaurant, 35-37 Church Street, Ilkley, West Yorkshire LS29 9DR. T: 01943 608484; E: firstname.lastname@example.org W: www.theboxtree.co.uk
Open: Fri-Sun 1200-2pm & Tue-Sat 7pm-9.30pm. Price of dinner for two including wine, coffee and service £153.