The last time I ate at the Feversham Arms, back in 2011, it was under the ownership of Jill and Simon Rhatigan.
It was posh, pricy, and classy what with the valet parking, heated outdoor swimming pool, a health spa and high spec bedrooms. Dinner in those days was £45. So I was eager to see how things had changed under the new regime, a consortium of three making up Feversham Arms Ltd, and the restaurant under long-serving head chef Simon Kelly.
The valet parking has gone. I was sent to the underground car park to do it myself this time – tough, I know.
But we soon settled into the glamour, sitting by the pool with a glass of champagne on a gloriously sunny day in June. The prices though may make you want to take a cold dip – £55 for the five-course tasting menu and going on for £50 a head for the a la carte.
No set menu, no early bird deals, no bargains. Just a rise of 20 per cent in two years in recession-proof Helmsley. It had better be good.
It was good… but only in parts. The restaurant had been given a makeover. Carpet replaced the tiles and reduced the clatter. Giant lampshades gave a contemporary edge; well upholstered chairs and banquettes and generously-spaced tables made for an agreeable dining room.
The menu looked more safe than sensational: tomato and mozzarella salad; ham terrine with pickled onions and fennel; mackerel with lemon, vanilla and wild asparagus; pea velouté with crab and tomato – no particularly fancy ingredients, but I’m not complaining. All credit to a chef who can make humble material into something good.
And he can. At least he did with the pea velouté: a puddle of tomato in the base of the bowl, crab dumplings and a jug of light, smooth, fresh pea soup poured around it by our waiter.
The mackerel was less thrilling: an artfully composed slate, with ingredients scattered across it: a small piece of grilled mackerel, sprigs of “wild” asparagus and a couple of clams topped with a single red nasturtium petal. Vanilla was advertised but I never spotted it. There was no sauce, no flavourings, and the nasturtium petal did nothing to bring it all together into a coherent plateful and at £10.50 that’s hard to stomach.
The four mains all hovered at about £28. Belly pork, veal rump, sea bream and halibut with tarragon fregola. “What’s tarragon fregola?” we asked. Answer: “A herb”. “Yes, I know what tarragon is, but what is fregola?” “It’s a type of tarragon.” Hmm! I don’t think so. And so it proved. It is a type of beaded pasta, a bit like giant couscous.
Full marks for tender halibut, tasty fregola and lamb sweetbreads. Zero marks for bluster from the waiter.
The sea bream needed no further explanation and was beautifully cooked. A good crisp skin with sweet yielding flesh and its accompaniment of smoked gnocchi was fabulous. Gorgeous soft potato with a subtle smoked flavour. There was fennel, too, and tomato sauce, but no sign of the touted sardine.
Desserts were a steep £9.50, the cheese chariot £12.50 or you could go cut-price with a single portion of Harrogate Blue cheese and biscuits £4.95.
You can’t go wrong with cheesecake. Or can you? Tread softly, lest you tread on my dreams. The mango cheesecake with liquorice and blueberry was a far cry from the cheesecake of my dreams – no crushed biscuit base, no sweet and creamy topping, no fruit dripping over the sides. This was a deconstructed cheesecake. A plate of mango jelly, a strip of fresh mango, two quenelles of cheesecake mixture and a light dusting of honeycomb crumbs.
I’m not a Luddite when it comes to modernising dishes, but this one had removed all the elements that make for a delicious cheesecake like the sweet crunchy base joined to the cream cheese topping the perfect combo of cream and crunch.
I’m sorry to report that the vanilla macaroon filled with white chocolate mousse that should have been soft and featherlight didn’t cut it either. It was tough as toffee and actually shot off the plate at one stage. By contrast, the cassis sorbet was fabulous, singing with blackcurrant and turning teeth ridiculously purple. It was our dish of the day.
So a meal of two halves. Good pea soup, poor mackerel, good mains, poor puddings – sorbet excepted. And then there was the bill. If we’d been paying gastropub prices, we might have been more forgiving, but our meal for two, with two glasses of champagne (£25) – no wine, no coffee – came to £119.50 making it one of the more expensive tables in Yorkshire. Sadly, it was far from the best. The Feversham Arms remains one of North Yorkshire’s most glamorous hotels but on this evidence the consistency of the kitchen doesn’t measure up.
Feversham Arms Hotel, Helmsley, North Yorkshire YO62 5AG. 01439 770766, www.fevershamarmshotel.com. Open daily for dinner, 6.45-9.30pm