Small is beautiful

WORKS OF ACT: A starter of venison and foie gras carpaccio, shaved Parmesan soused vegetables with truffle oil; Bellow, a main course of cutlet of lamb with slow cooked breast, ratatouille, white haricot beans, roast garlic with a rich jus; Bottom, owner chef Jon Vennell  at his restaurant.
WORKS OF ACT: A starter of venison and foie gras carpaccio, shaved Parmesan soused vegetables with truffle oil; Bellow, a main course of cutlet of lamb with slow cooked breast, ratatouille, white haricot beans, roast garlic with a rich jus; Bottom, owner chef Jon Vennell at his restaurant.
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RESTAURANT review: Elaine Lemm finds precision and minimalism at Vennels in Masham. Pictures by Mike Cowling.

It seems that John and his wife Laura have a formula that works for them and their customers, they stick with it and apparently are not tempted by fad or fashion to change too much.

Restaurant review. Vennell's Restaurant in Masham, North Yorkshire.''Main course of Cutlet of lamb with slow cooked breast, raratouille vegetables, white haricot beans, roast garlic with a rich jus.'picture mike cowling april 21 2011

Restaurant review. Vennell's Restaurant in Masham, North Yorkshire.''Main course of Cutlet of lamb with slow cooked breast, raratouille vegetables, white haricot beans, roast garlic with a rich jus.'picture mike cowling april 21 2011

This reflects in the décor, which, though not old-fashioned, is not of this decade. Both the restaurant and the downstairs lounge ooze a comfortable, approachable elegance with a sort of familiarity that feels more like the sitting room of a wealthy aunt.

Anything that smacks of aunty however stops firmly at the furnishings because both the menu and the wine list are bang of this decade. A carefully thought out wine list sweeps across new and old world styles with approachable prices, though a few more by the glass would be welcome. The concise menu is well balanced if you are happy with fish, meat and game but non-meat eaters seem to have been forgotten – though I am sure a chef of Jon’s pedigree will rustle something up if you ask.

Don’t be fooled though, being small doesn’t mean choosing from this menu is easy. For starters we lumbered back and forth between a club sandwich terrine, intriguing; salmon poached in olive oil, initially not appealing; pan seared scallops – a little ordinary, venison and foie gras carpaccio – tempting.

The terrine won on intrigue. How could a humble sandwich be elevated to the lofty status of a terrine? In Jon Vennell’s hands, quite easily. The elements of the sandwich had been deconstructed into delicate layers of bacon, chicken and tomato bound together with a supremely light mousse. The plate was finished with micro cress – the current celebrity of the garnish world – a slice of brioche and sweep of mayonnaise. The balance of flavours and textures in the dish were impressive despite being slightly skewed with garlic. The dish was amusing as well as delicious.

Restaurant review. Vennell's Restaurant in Masham, North Yorkshire.''Owner chef, John Vennell, is pictured at hir Masham restaurant.'picture mike cowling april 21 2011

Restaurant review. Vennell's Restaurant in Masham, North Yorkshire.''Owner chef, John Vennell, is pictured at hir Masham restaurant.'picture mike cowling april 21 2011

Salmon poached in olive oil had not initially grabbed my attention as a fatty fish cooked in oil seemed a blob of fat too far. Curiosity however got the better of me and I quickly realised how wrong I had been, it was the exact opposite. What arrived was a soft, squashy piece of delicately flavoured salmon sitting all warm and glossy on the plate. It was accompanied by apple two ways and a bunch of tiny, earthy leaves. The only thing I couldn’t quite get was the apple with the salmon. It wasn’t wrong, I just didn’t get the point unless I am simply being challenged and not rising to it?

The apple could have easily slipped onto my main course plate of pork confit – apple and pork together are heavenly if a little predictable. This plate of pork was gorgeous, not particularly a food word but it perfectly describes this dish – so attractive on the plate and in the mouth. One touch with a fork and the pork fell apart and a tap of the knife shattered the sharp, crisp crackling. This heavenly confection sat prettily on the plate with crushed chickpeas and a bed of julienned carrots and pak choi. There was a little puff of foam to round the dish off and though I tired of its use some time ago, somehow the foam was acceptable here.

Across the table, mains of sea bream with a beetroot risotto and chicken wings, and a braised lamb shank with bean stew were passed over for an oxtail and mushroom suet pudding. My memory of soggy, stodgy, suet puddings at school have forever blocked the appeal of this dish but the one served here blew that notion well out of the water.

How pastry this light could hold the bulging contents was astonishing. Slicing into the pastry required only the lightest touch and the dark, rich gravy, chunks of oxtail and mushrooms spilled onto the (extremely hot) plate. Perfect to soak up the juices was a pie of squidgy mash, and there was a quick flash of classicism with the perfectly turned vegetables. The extreme heat of the plate unfortunately caused the thick jus-like gravy to dry up which was a shame but as the dish was devoured so quickly not too, too much was wasted.

At the end of mains we had eaten our way through fresh bread rolls, a pea soup amuse bouche, and four plates of lovely food yet felt neither over-full nor hungry, just quietly replete with room for pudding – always the sign of a good meal.

Puds came with the same challenge of choosing between a chocolate fondant, vanilla and Grand Marnier Pannacotta, lemon assiette or Yorkshire cheeses.

Lemon won. Lemon curd, lemon sponge, lemon posset, iced lemon mousse with pine nuts was faultless.

Though stitched together with lemon, the diversity of these four components again showed the skill level in the kitchen, which like the smallness of everything here is huge in its delivery.

A candlelit, buzzing, restaurant coupled with exemplary service and fabulous food tells me Jon and Laura have absolutely got the recipe right here and they justifiably, should be proud of what they do.

7 Silver Street, Masham, North Yorkshire, HG4 4DX Tel: 01765 689000.

Opening times: Lunch, Sunday from 12.30pm, Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday 7.15pm-11.30pm. Main course with a starter £23.50, dessert £4.40, cheese £5.50.