There’s still much to love, but Amanda Wragg finds that the Angel at Hetton’s halo has dimmed a little.
Criticising the Angel is tantamount to giving Alan Bennett a bad review for The History Boys. Mess with National Treasures at your peril. I had to think long and hard before even writing “criticise” in the same sentence as “Angel”. But what can I do? I’m not going to pull the wool over your eyes, just in case you actually take notice of the things we foodists write, then turn up to wherever we’ve raved about and it’s rubbish. You’ve mis-spent your hard-earned money and we’ve lost credibility.
I’m not saying the food at the Angel is bad. Far from it. When it’s good it’s heart-stoppingly, eyes-rolling-back-in-their-sockets good. But it’s not faultless. And when you part with the thick end of £60 for two at lunchtime without wine, the faults need to be addressed.
What is faultless is the location. Winding through the Dales on a crisp November morning, my heart sings. I can’t help thinking of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon barrelling along to Hetton on such a day in the BBC’s gastronomic tour de force The Trip. But me and Mum aren’t competing to see who does the best Michael Caine impression, but counting our blessings that the day is so stunning. The Angel sits squarely, handsomely in the tiny hamlet; vine-covered, smartly painted, a fleet of those posh silver Hondas parked outside.
Inside, it’s all gnarled beams, hunting prints on the walls and swirly carpets. There’s a sensational working cast iron range (which could have been lit earlier in the day – we didn’t take off our coats for a good 20 minutes). I could be wrong but I don’t think the décor’s had a reboot for a number of years and parts of it look a little tired and past its best.
Original chef/owner the late Denis Watkins was dubbed “The Godfather of the Gastropub” 30 years ago. Some may think he’s got a lot to answer for. Gussying up pub food is subject to routine debate depending on your preferences. Back then, refined food in rural inns was an odd concept – still is sometimes. My job finds me in a lot of pubs, gastro and otherwise, and I’ve spotted a move back to more rustic, wholesome, honest food. Broadly I approve of this. The menu at the Angel isn’t making that move any day soon, judging by the current offering.
The Bar Brasserie menu is appealing, of that there’s no doubt, and there’s an interesting European whiff about it, with the likes of figs braised in red wine roasted with Brie de Meux, pumpkin and sage ravioli and tagliatelle with prawns, chorizo and rainbow chard. Mains include braised shoulder of Bolton Abbey lamb, confit Goosnargh duck leg (what did we do for duck before Reg Johnson went into business?) and of course the famous Angel’s little moneybags, “a treasure of seafood baked in crispy pastry” which has rightly been on the menu since day one if memory serves.
Today’s specials are chalked up on the board behind the beautiful old oak bar, and in the spirit of embracing cutting edge technology, also available on an iPad which is passed round the room. There’s something curious about watching silver surfers scroll down a tablet, but one elegant, elderly woman (immaculately turned out, never took her hat off throughout) stares at it, bewildered.
Provençale fish soup features on the iPad, along with Queenie scallops. The soup is little short of flawless, with such depth of flavour and colour I estimate cooking time of around a fortnight. Freighted with fish, the accompanying aioli, rouille and gruyere are just perfect with thin slices of sourdough sprinkled with more (melted) cheese. At £6.25 it would be perfectly acceptable to stop there if you’re on a budget. Likewise the succulent scallops, served old school style on their shells, brimming with golden gruyere and needing a teaspoon to scrape up the sticky bits.
Sea bass with crushed artichoke, mushrooms and lentil and red wine sauce is an eye-watering £20 and not what it says it is. The mushrooms are missing and a smear of roast beetroot replaces the wine sauce. It’s a good dish (apart from the artichoke which has just too much bite) – and the beetroot turns out to be a perfect match for the fish – but I think someone might have mentioned it. A greedy side order of potato wedges are unnecessary (a dish of buttery, earthy new potatoes having arrived with the bass) but very welcome; crisp, bronzed and heavenly dunked into the spiky tomato relish.
But duff dish of the day is oven baked smoked haddock topped with Yorkshire rarebit and tomato salad. It simply doesn’t work, mainly due to the bracingly fridge-cold sliced tomatoes topped with raw red onion that the (slightly tough) fish sits on. It’s a lacklustre plate of food badly conceived and by no means a steal at £14.25. It’s clear that there’s no small amount of skill in the kitchen judging by our starters but someone’s taken their eye off the ball here.
Perhaps it’s apposite at this point to note that service is exemplary; made up of cheerful, clued-up youngsters, they’re chummy without being over-familiar. The restaurant manager has done a great training job, although he did tell one of them off rather brusquely within earshot. As a general rule it’s better to scold your staff away from the customers.
We’re soon back on form with the Angel’s “famous” sticky toffee pudding with crème Chantilly. Oh my word. Oh. My. Word. Is this the best STP in the county? Possibly the country? It’s a contender. A dessert as good as this with two spoons placed in the middle of the table either side of which sit a pair of World Authorities on such matters is always going to result in an undignified race to the finish and that’s just what happened.
I feel churlish making any sort of criticism of an old favourite like the Angel – particularly after such a pudding, but good beginnings and endings does not a memorable meal make – it isn’t good enough in today’s climate; Yorkshire’s blessed with a lot of great pubs and restaurants and they’re all competing for our brass. I’d like to see a chef as talented as Bruce Elsworth slightly shift his thinking away from reductions, slicks and swirls and let his impeccably sourced ingredients do the talking; it’s a bit try-hard. Apart from that stupendous fish soup, which has gone straight to top of my Desert Island Top Ten Dishes of All Time.
The Angel, Hetton, Skipton BD23 6LT. 01756 730263, www.angelhetton.co.uk.