I thought this place was going to be a shoo-in. I didn’t give it a second thought. It’s been around in one form or another for donkey’s years and its reputation for good food goes before it.
As well as the word on the street, I was predisposed to like the place on account of the location. The three-storey 17th century building is extraordinarily atmospheric. Once the home to Ellerkers, the harness and rope makers (famously, Ralph Ellerker was commissioned to make the hangman’s nooses in the nearby prison) it’s the very essence of what makes York unique. Charm, history, quirkiness – it’s all there, in spades.
The Walmgate Ale House is a relaxed, inviting space, perfect for meeting up with mates and having a pint and a bar snack; as we’re making our way upstairs to the Bistro, a large tray of them held aloft comes through destined for a gaggle of young women hellbent on a party, and part of me wishes I was tucking in too, they look so good.
I spot Scotch eggs, potted fish, pulled pork doorstep sandwiches and a glance at the blackboard menu tells me they’re homemade. Beer-wise, a bunch of interesting breweries are represented, including Copper Dragon, Rudgate, Treboom and lager from the Great Yorkshire Brewery.
The first-floor dining room is appealing, all scrubbed wooden floors, exposed brick walls and a lofted, beamed ceiling, with plenty more hangman’s history to keep you amused – framed old photos, lengths of twisted rope and bits of saddlery. Candles flicker, glasses chink. A tiny dish of crisp lentils spiced with a chilli kick arrives with the menu.
Chef/owner Michael Hjort is a respected York mainstay and the director of the much-celebrated Food Festival. His flagship fine dining restaurant, Meltons, has won any number of awards and plaudits. So why is the recently rebranded Meltons Too so disappointing?
It’s to do with care, I think. Or, on this particular night, lack of it. There weren’t any terrible crimes but there was no flair either, not much thought and little creativity. It was (picture a shrug here) okay, which, when you’re parting with the thick end of 80 quid, won’t do.
The menu looks pleasing enough with the likes of open butternut squash ravioli, potato gnocchi, fillet of stone bass with mussels and duck leg confit, with another half dozen items on the specials blackboard. Nothing fancy, just classic bistro dishes – my favourite kind of food in fact. But what tips up is neither bistro nor fine dining, but a muddle somewhere in the middle.
The fishcakes (with crabmeat and Thai style dipping sauce) aren’t freighted with fish, but potato, one of my pet hates. They’re timidly seasoned and unremarkable. My scallops on minted pea puree are fat, juicy and accurately cooked, the chorizo working well with them. It’s definitely dish of the night.
My co-diner, a York resident and fan of Hjort’s cooking, has the bouillabaise from the specials board and it’s confounding. A classic bistro bouillabaise should be a tomatoey broth full of fish, and served with bread and a rouille, a garlicky mayo. What arrives is a small bowl and, while it’s generously full of fish, the broth is minimalist – and what broth there is is so loaded with cream that topping it with croutons and rouille would have just been overkill.
They’ve tried to pull the fine dining card out with my “medley of pork” (roast shoulder, pulled pork with chorizo and black pudding with apples and Yorkshire cider) with that artful positioning on the plate thing but it’s a one-note dish and that note is school dinners, and not something I’m ever going to rave about or recommend to you.
Dessert cheers us up. We like the sound of rhubarb sponge compote but go for vanilla panna cotta which is delightful, with exactly the right amount of wibble, the sharp red berry compote a clever accompaniment and the homemade shortbread is just perfect.
Everything else works; service is attentive and friendly, the restaurant is charming, the location is terrific and I really like the ground-floor bar. God knows the competition in the city is keen – it’s razor-sharp on Walmgate alone – so the kitchen has to do better at these prices. What we want is honest, friendly food that doesn’t overstrive. Next time I think we’ll settle for a pint of Yorkshire Sparkle, a sausage roll and a bag of pork scratchings in the alehouse.
Meal for two, two courses each and a shared dessert £76.40, which included a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc costing £26. Walmgate Ale House & Bistro, 25 Walmgate, York, YO1 9TX, telephone 01904 629222, www.walmgateale.co.uk