A once forlorn village pub is back on the scene and has ambitions. Jill Turton takes a seat at the Alice Hawthorn.
The backwater village of Nun Monkton, off the A59 York to Harrogate road, looks like perfect fodder for the property pages. Cottage gardens with white picket fences open onto a village green replete with duck pond and towering maypole. St Mary’s church boasts Burne-Jones and William Morris in its stained glass. A footpath to an old ferry crossing of the River Ouse skirts the ancient Manor House. No through traffic disturbs the timeless English idyll.
Nor, however, did much traffic disturb the village pub, the Alice Hawthorn (named after a successful Victorian racehorse). In recent years it has closed, re-opened and this summer began new life again under the ownership of two entrepreneurial couples. Lee and Amelia Thornley from nearby Green Hammerton are tile importers and run a boutique hotel in Spain; Lyndon and Cathy Nicholson live in the village and have an advertising and marketing business; all four admirably committed to the village not just keeping its pub, but raising its standards, too.
After a furious three weeks of refurbishment involving pots of Farrow and Ball blue, wood and slate for the floor, chunky tables of recycled wood, modish blinds of old sack cloth and worn leather armchairs, they re-opened in August under a bold banner of “Foragers Kitchen” and an online table booking, a system I never quite trust.
Not that the phone was much better. “Any chance of a table for four, 7.30pm Saturday?” Hesitation, prevarication and then put on hold with muzak for a tediously long time. No, they didn’t think they could do 7.30 but maybe 8pm; someone would ring back to confirm. No one rang back – did I say, there were marketing experts running this show? – so four hours later I rang again. “Did we have a table or not?” It turned out yes they had a table and 7.30pm would be fine.
No matter. On a balmy autumn evening the new improved Alice Hawthorn looked the part and their Foragers Kitchen idea looked promising, too, based on local, seasonal produce and an agreeably short menu of four starters and four mains that changes weekly.
It’s a commitment, says Lyndon Nicholson, to the local bounty. “We have an army of foragers going out and collecting damsons, sloes, hawthorn, white nettles. People bring in local apples and produce they are growing in their gardens. We have a micro-culture here.”
Wow! An admirable notion, stirring autumnal fancies of cobnuts and brambles, but tough to live up to. On this particular Saturday Alice’s army had seemingly travelled far. Malaysian fish curry was not quite what I’d had in mind. Nor moules frites. And whitebait? Unsustainable and a fish to avoid according to the Marine Conservation Society.
There were better local and seasonal nods with butternut squash soup; duck breast with savoy cabbage, rabbit and artichoke paella; and apple tart, although no citing of their origins. If only I’d gone to the bar sooner I’d have seen chalked up on the Nibbles board something more tantalising – roast partridge legs for £4, sadly the only game on offer.
So much for foraging, what about the cooking? Three chefs in three months sounds ominous. No such thing, insists an upbeat Nicholson, we just wanted to upgrade. Whatever has been going on in the kitchen, the current chef can prepare mussels, impeccably steamed and finished with white wine and cream.
Beef carpaccio would have been excellent, given the excellent beef, fresh rocket and slivers of Parmesan, except it appeared to be devoid of seasoning. No hint of salt, pepper, olive oil or lemon. It doesn’t take much to turn good beef into beef carpaccio but it does involve most if not all of the above.
Steak and chips confirmed that they’ve got their meat sourcing sorted – I can certainly vouch for one of their providers, the Ainsty Farm Shop – and a chef who can cook steak. Rabbit and artichoke paella was reported as fine, if a bit dry; the duck breast a bit dull though the savoy cabbage was good. That Malaysian fish curry consisted of noodles, white fish, coconut milk and pak choi but, critically, bore no evidence of any spice at all. Not worth the journey.
Puddings were perfectly acceptable with apple tart, crème brulee and sticky toffee pudding though it was hardly a choice Ray Mears would have come up with in the depths of autumn’s harvest.
Service by two young lads was mostly fine. They were as nervous as kittens but eager to please. More importantly for a Saturday night there was little sign of a senior, experienced hand running the show.
Still, three cheers to the Nicholsons and Thornleys for bringing their local back to life, and locals were indeed dropping in for a pint. Two cheers for the food and service which is a work in progress. Oh, and do get whoever answers the phone to master the art of taking a booking. It’s good for business.
The Alice Hawthorn, The Green, Nun Monkton, York YO26 8EW. 01423 330303, www.thealicehawthorn.com. Open: Tuesday to Friday, 5pm-9pm; Saturday, 12-9pm; Sunday, 12-7pm. Price: Three courses £30 plus wine and service.