I last reviewed the Dawnay Arms in Newton on Ouse five years ago, just after renowned chef Martel Smith and his wife Kelly had bought it.
I knew the pub, having lived next door for several years when it had a close relationship with a frozen-food delivery van. I well remember the aroma of cooking oil wafting across my garden when the wind was in a certain direction. I moved, the pub closed, and incidentally, those two things are not related.
It remained closed for 18 months until the Smiths swept in and swept out any leftovers from that era. They replaced it with an inn more befitting to the pretty riverside location; rugged stone floors; rustic tables made of wood recovered from an old post office in Durham; in the bar, an inglenook fireplace which I’m sure is a joy in the winter months. The restaurant area is a tad more formal but has managed the tricky combination of traditional comfort and contemporary art well. From here you can also enjoy views of pristine lawns sweeping down to the river and beyond – just ignore the car park in between. This is a food-led country pub so no real drinking-only bit, and what once was the pool room is now an overspill for diners. To be fair, though, there’s a generous drinking-chatting area and a few stools around the bar which it seems the locals enjoy.
The years since my last visit apparently have left the place untouched, it is only in the menu I notice a difference. Martel has an impressive pedigree at the stove after training with Marco Pierre White including Gateforth Lodge and while at its zenith, York Place, Leeds. He is renowned for his modern British food which though steeped in classicism was always perky and interesting. This menu, however, looked safe and predictable. The usual gastro culprits of fish and chips, belly pork, steamed salmon, sirloin duck et al, nonchalantly lingered within the menu. There was the occasional deft flourish though which revealed the Martel I was used to.
A ravioli starter of wood pigeon, bacon and pine nuts was a case in point. This was no pea-sized portion rather a fist-sized offering as the wood pigeon had given up a whole breast to the pasta wrapping. It was spot-on cooking with soft, pink meat and a bed of dark, rich sauce redolent with the generous portion of wild mushrooms it contained.
A natty stack of avocado and sweet Whitby crab may be a 90s throwback but I never remember one tasting this good. That may in part be due to the spicy tomato dressing livening things up on the plate. It was great and a little heavier flick of the salt pot on the crab would have put it closer to perfect.
Peppered duck breast could so easily have been another predictable offering but Martel popped a little dumpling of duck leg meat on the side which added a point of difference. Bizarrely though, the dumpling tasted slightly sweet which I found confusing. No-one asked how we wanted the duck cooking and I love that arrogance in a chef who serves it to you the way he/she wants and what he wanted here was exactly what I like. A pink, juicy meat, with precision seasoning and the addition of a mirror-finish sauce made this a stellar piece of cooking.
Following a lightly gamey theme to our food came a hefty chunk of tasty, tender roe deer on a bed of celeriac purée, buttery cabbage and bearing a similar shiny sauce to the above. As this was yet another near faultless piece of cooking it is perhaps a little churlish to say that the menu puzzlingly seemed to lean more to autumn than late spring.
Moving swiftly on to lighter things, the puddings had more consideration for the seasons. The one stray of sticky toffee pudding was forgiven as the appearance of raspberries, strawberries, lemon, apricots and almonds breathed brightness into the menu.
On a good-food-high it was nigh on impossible to choose a pudding so a taster plate seemed the easiest option. Chocolate soufflé, crème brulée, an apricot and almond tart, a white chocolate delice with fresh strawberries, and the rogue sticky toffee pudding were all very well received.
A bill of £78 for two for the food and three generous glasses of wine though was the icing on this rather delicious cake. That is a remarkable price for food of this quality. For a Thursday evening the Dawnay was enviably busy and from the way Kelly was chatting to many of the customers, I can only assume they are regulars.
So, far from criticising Martel for the safety of his menu, I now applaud him as it seems both he and Kelly are playing to their audience rather than dictating to them. They are giving customers what they want but without compromise to either the standard or quality of their food and service. In these difficult times, others should watch and learn.
The Dawnay Arms, Newton on Ouse, York, YO30 2BR Tel: 01347 848345.
Food Served: Tues – Sat: 12 to 2.30pm and 6pm till 9.30pm. Sun 12 to 6pm.