RESTAURANT review: Jill Turton at the Oak Tree Inn, Helperby. Pictures by Mike Cowling.
take my advice, if you’re offered a choice of a table reservation at 6pm or 9pm on a Saturday night, take the early one. We arrived at the lavishly revamped Oak Tree Inn at Helperby in good time for our 9pm table, took drinks to a pair of plush tartan chairs, told the staff where we were. And waited.
At 9.15pm, we enquired if we’d been forgotten. “Just checking your table,” was the reply, whatever that meant. Actually, it meant that all tables were fully occupied and there was no prospect of hustling anyone off to honour our reservation. For the next 20 minutes of “table checking”, we had a grandstand view of squads of waiters bustling in and out of the dining room while studiously avoiding eye contact with the problem that was us. At 9.35 pm, they gave us the menu, offered a drink on the house, and, most preciously, someone finally uttered the word “sorry”. At 9.43pm, we were finally seated.
Yes, it was a busy night and everybody bar us was clearly having a cracking time. No, you can’t kick people off their tables. Yes, it’s a brand new operation, so teething problems are forgivable. But the bottom line is don’t take the booking if you can’t handle it and have someone take charge of the cock-up before the customers seethe.
All this should annoy the hell out of the genial owner of the Oak Tree, Michael Ibbotson, who had just deservedly picked up the national Publican of the Year Award at Grosvenor House, for his “outstanding track record” in running the Durham Ox at Crayke for ten years and for “his confidence in the pub trade by launching two new venues.”
Last year, Ibbotson and his business partner, Chris Blundell, launched Provenance Inns, taking three ailing village pubs and turning them into rather gorgeous gastropubs. The Carpenters Arms at Felixkirk was first to open in September and I loved it, all log fires, candles, deep red walls and buckets of garden flowers supplied by Blundell from his stunning garden up the road at Mount St John, from where all the fruit and vegetables are sourced. The Farmers at Brafferton is next in line and now the Oak Tree at Helperby has opened its doors.
The Oak Tree has had the biggest overhaul. It was a virtual ruin when they bought it and over the months it’s been rebuilt with slate, oak, weathered brick and more of that trademark red paint. They’ve done a terrific job. There’s a bar, six bedrooms, a private dining room with terrace and the main dining room is a treat, a lovely space with striking art on the walls, leather banquettes, dark wood tables, and a huge brick fireplace. Like the Carpenters, it glows with silver and candlelight and great vases of those Mount St John garden flowers.
The menu, much like the Ox and the Carpenters, is straight down the middle of the pub restaurant road. Everyone will find something to like on the big A3 card or blackboard: whitebait, scallops, goat’s cheese, pork terrine, cheese and onion tart, baked cod, duck breast, bangers and mash, steak and chips. No risk, proven customer winners.
We began with a £20 sharing board of seafood. Meant for two, it would have happily fed four, what with two mini prawn cocktails, two queen scallops, a pile of smoked salmon, bread and butter and four large haddock goujons. The scallops in cheese were marginally overdone but the goujons were admirably crisp and the prawn cocktails textbook.
At mains we went for a Barnsley chop special with herby mash and green beans. Good, pink lamb, nicely char-grilled though with no discernable herbs in the mash. A wooden board creaked under my sticky spare ribs that even the waiter described as “another gargantuan course”. With French fries and a pot of coleslaw, it all but finished me. Another perfectly competent and enjoyable dish but the scale was excessive. Not surprisingly, we saw at least one party leave clutching doggy bags of leftovers.
We managed to share a dessert of rhubarb and ginger beer jelly, topped with rhubarb compote, clotted cream ice cream and their own-made ginger snap which turned out to be the dish of the night. Light, fresh, delicate and full of flavour and rounded off with a good strong cafetiere and chocolates.
“Everything,” it says on the menu, “from the bread at the beginning to the chocolate with your coffee is made here at the Oak Tree.” It’s an impressive claim for a village pub and if you have time you can read the full list of suppliers on the menu. Provenance Inns is well named.
Vegetarians don’t get much of a look in, something I’ve taken cheerful issue with Ibbotson before, but overall he and Provenance Inns know what they’re doing. The prices are keen; an average £5 for starters, up to £15 for mains. Beer and wine is safe and sound. The staff work their socks off all night and probably all day too, since there’s food right through from breakfast seven days a week.
By the end of our day, someone took charge and knocked all the drinks off the bill. Which certainly left a better taste and confirmed that at heart this is a classy operation. In fact, I’m sure I’ll be back. Just not with a Saturday 9pm booking.
* Oak Tree Inn, Raskelf Road, Helperby, York YO61 2PH. 01423 789189, www.theoaktreehelperby.com. Open: every day 8am-9.30pm (Sun 8.30pm). Price: Dinner for two including coffee, wine and service approx. £90.