There’s a new owner and a new chef in the kitchen, but Jill Turton finds the Cleveland Tontine as reliable as ever.
It’s hard to write Cleveland Tontine instead of McCoy’s Tontine. For decades one or all three of the McCoy brothers have been at the helm of this highly individual, even exotic, restaurant with rooms, marooned on a traffic junction between the A19 and the A72 beneath the Cleveland Hills.
Now, it’s under new ownership. Charles Tompkins, an undersea exploration mogul (more pipelines than galleon gold), bought out the brothers and, after closing for the summer and spending a King Neptune’s ransom on it, has given the Tontine a facelift.
But first a flashback to the 1970s when Eugene, Tom and Peter McCoy took the 1804 coaching inn and in the dark ages of British food launched an exuberant British/quasi French menu of langoustines, lobster, prawns and asparagus tips, duck in cherry sauce and pureed vegetables. We ate off mismatched plates in a wackily designed dining room thick with ferns, parasols and chairs leaking their springs.
For the next three decades the McCoys were the unofficial patron saints of north east food, fixtures in the Good Food Guide and national winners of Egon Ronay’s Restaurant of the Year. In time, Peter left to bring the Tontine glow to the Golden Lion in Osmotherley. Eugene turned up on TV with his red specs and flowing hair. There was a McCoys in Yarm and McCoys at the Rooftop Restaurant in the newly opened Baltic in Gateshead.
Throttling back, Tom and Peter have recently set up in the Haynes Arms, another A19 pub and, after 37 years on the frontline, Eugene has just taken the nearby Crathorne Arms. So what remains of their heritage at the Tontine?
It’s good to see that the madcap dining room of fond memory is available as a function/private dining room complete with bold navy ceiling, an over-the-top chandelier and those lacquered Japanese parasols. In similar brazen spirit, a new leopardskin print carpet leads down to the basement dining room.
Nothing kitsch here – the tiled floor, the listed plaster relief ceiling, the wobbly walls and the gorgeously carved stone fireplace are intact. Dark mahogany sideboards are set off by crisp white linen, sparkling glassware and silver cutlery. And, yes, the mis-matched sideplates are back. It’s all aglow with candlelight and firelight, one of my favourite rooms in Yorkshire.
And the menu? There’s an a la carte at lunch and dinner with the likes of warm beetroot and goat’s cheese salad, duck confit terrine, corned beef hash, osso buco of venison and fish pie. They trade up some at dinner to include partridge, pheasant, venison Wellington and an appealing meat-free dish of polenta, ceps, baby artichokes and Wensleydale cheese croquettes.
There’s a two or three-course menu at lunch, too, from which my starter plate is large, white and square and contains a small disc of salmon, a petite quenelle of crab, an even smaller spot of gribiche sauce and a tiny blob of sharp apple something. Artfully laid across it all is a shard of what I take to be crisped seaweed. It’s hilariously small, no doubt achingly fashionable, and its flavours are clean, clear and fresh. I’m not complaining (well, only a bit, I could have eaten more). After all, how much did I expect for £20 and three courses?
In contrast, an a la carte starter is a deliciously retro dish of queenie and clam risotto, topped with bacon and crumbs in a melting, buttery clamshell. Nothing nouvelle about that.
There was no disputing the size of my main course, nor its taste. Nicely prepared slices of beef skirt on mash and a beautifully yielding steamed suet pudding. The beef had been slow cooked to sticky goodness with a perfect honey roast carrot and prime gravy. Bullseye on a damp, winter lunchtime.
Equally restorative is the ‘posh Parmo’ from the carte. For anyone south of Middlesbrough, a Parmo is the late night snack of choice after a skinful in the pubs of Teesside. It consists of a flattened chicken breast, breaded, deep fried and topped with white sauce and mounds of melted cheese (which might once have been Parmesan, but more likely to be industrial cheddar). Serve with chips. Onion rings, mushrooms and ketchup are optional extras. Maybe your taste, not mine.
Chef James Cooper’s £14 ‘posh Parmo’ is significantly more elegant than its Linthorpe Road counterpart. He stuffs his chicken with garlic butter and truffle, tops it with a poached egg wrapped in Prosciutto ham and serves it all on poached baby gem lettuce. It is delicious.
At dessert, two spoons please to share a warm chocolate fondant, banana sorbet and a passion fruit and coconut cannelloni. It scores well not just for elegance but for the perfectly timed fondant that soon has molten chocolate dribbling down my chin.
The McCoys are a tough act to follow but old fans can be more than reassured. Cooper’s menu is well judged, well balanced, solid in ticking the required boxes of seasonal flavours and local sourcing – and he can cook.
The Cleveland Tontine, Staddlebridge, Northallerton DL6 3JB. 01609 882671, theclevelandtontine.co.uk
Price: £35.50 per person plus wine, coffee and service.