You know the feeling, you’re visiting a stately home – as a paying visitor sadly, not a private guest – and you need something to eat. Do you get to nosh among the chandeliers, the polished mahogany and those carefully positioned, silver-framed photos of the time that a royal came to stay?
Of course not. You’re smoothly directed past the big house to the outhouses round the back – think Castle Howard, Harewood House, Sutton Park or Temple Newsam.
At least at The Coach House, just outside Middleton Tyas in northernmost North Yorkshire, the clue is explicitly in the name. Sweeping down the drive we get a fleeting glimpse through the trees of the lovely, John Carr-designed Middleton Lodge (“Lodge” being a major understatement), before the signposts send us off to the stables. But this time we’re heading for a treat.
Wakefield-born Carr, the 18th century architect of Harewood House, mighty Wentworth Woodhouse, the Crescent at Buxton, Wakefield prison and countless buildings and bridges, could design a stable just as well as a Palladian pile. It might be plainer than the big house, but the collection of honeyed stone buildings has a beautiful symmetry, with arches, sash windows, mighty carriage doors and neat parterre gardens.
It was all built in the late 1700s for mine owner George Hartley and for the last 30 years has been home to the Allison family who run it as a corporate and wedding venue and now after a £2m spend (including some EU Rural Development money) on the stables and coach house, a boutique hotel and restaurant.
They’ve done a grand job. You won’t feel like the poor relation here. The bar has lovely exposed old brick and a zinc bar. It leads in to 2,000sq ft of dining room, stretching upwards to a beamed and vaulted ceiling. You could keep a whole fleet of carriages in here. They probably did.
Walls have been given tongue and groove panelling while higher up the plaster has been left blotchy, untouched and unpainted – a case of damp-chic? It all works, giving the room a patina that sits well with the new slate floor, the distressed wooden table tops, chairs and buttoned banquettes upholstered in blue/green tweed.
They’ve got the lighting right, too. Spotlights bounce off the ceiling and wall sconces to create pools above the tables. The whole effect is a modern, pared back look that embraces, even enhances Carr’s original design.
Now, I’ve eaten in enough stables with contract caterers and posh gaffs where they’ve invested in everything but a sensible chef, to be wary of a set-up like this. So I’ll declare my hand: this one works and works very well indeed. Chef Gareth Rayner (ex-Wynyard Hall, another country house affair in Durham) can cook to match the glamour of the setting.
We began with asparagus and “soft hen’s egg” and “blow-torched” mackerel. The mackerel, with its scorched, crisp skin, was fresh and delicious, alongside a garnish of pureed broccoli, pickled shallots and finely sliced, raw Yorkshire rhubarb.
The asparagus was good, too. Accurately cooked and accompanied by sweet Jersey Royals, a kick of black pudding and a seasonal touch of wild garlic. The only questionable ingredient was the “soft hen’s egg”. The runny yolk made a pleasing sauce for the asparagus but the gloopy white was either under-poached or, I suspect, the subject of slow cooking in a water bath.
For mains, sea bream with plumped up and well-flavoured Israeli cous cous, little crab beignets and another scattering of wild garlic was spot on.
Even better was the lamb. A lean, lightly cooked saddle and a slow-cooked, tender piece of shoulder was given a tasty crust. They came with excellent gnocchi flavoured with smoked garlic and little crisp coated cubes of melting Ribblesdale goat’s cheese and puddles of pureed wild garlic (a third appearance but no matter) and a jug of gravy brought to the table. It was really very good indeed.
There was a sophisticated list of desserts. They included mango and caramel mille-feuille, banana and caramel parfait, chocolate ganache with toffee and milk ice cream, tiramisu and honeycomb ice cream, the work of pastry chef Henny Crosland. We chose the parfait and the mille feuille. Both were skilful, cleverly constructed, prettily presented and ample: high class patisserie without quite raising my roof.
There’s a solid selection of wine by glass or bottle, trusty favourites and interesting alternatives. Service was charming throughout. It’s a close call when you arrive, here and plenty of other places, and you’re asked three times if you’d like a drink before you’ve even opened menu or wine list. Are they being thoughtful or a little too keen to sell?
And the verdict? I would normally run a mile from eating anywhere that trades heavily in conferences and weddings. Five minutes from Scotch Corner, The Coach House is the exception to the rule. It has skill, style and substance. I liked it a lot.
• The Coach House, Kneeton Lane, Middleton Tyas, Richmond, North Yorkshire DL10 6NJ. 01325 377977, www.middletonlodge.co.uk. Open: Wednesday to Saturday, 12-2.30pm & 6-9pm; Sunday, 12-4pm & 7-9pm. Price: dinner for two around £62 plus wine and coffee.