We're up north, beyond the Dales, beyond Scotch Corner and the A66, where boundary changes shunted the village of Hutton Magna out of Yorkshire and half a mile into Durham. There's a raw northerly wind, too, threatening sleet and snow. If ever there was a night for the refuge of a welcoming country inn with lights glowing, fire roaring and whole-hearted cooking, this was it.
Cue the Oak Tree (except on Mondays and lunchtimes), a single-storey whitewashed cottage that immediately feels warm and homely and ancient. Owner Claire Ross is bustling around, taking coats, seating us on the leather sofas by the fire, bringing drinks and menus and nibbles: homemade spiced nuts and parmesan biscuits.
There are a few locals propping up the bar although the debate is less about tractors and turnips than the prospects of landing a 747 at Newcastle airport. Which suggests why the pub is closed at lunch. In truth, it is primarily a restaurant that is nobly still running a public bar rather than the other way round.
More ancient whitewash and those now ubiquitous high-backed leather restaurant chairs first take the eye but the most remarkable feature is the sheer weight and number of cookery books around the place. They are everywhere, not casually scattered to give off a subliminal aura of good taste but seriously stacked. No coffee table would be strong enough.
Nor are they just the latest Nigella or Jamie. These are the heavyweight tomes of the hautest cuisine with prices to match and fearsome titles like Recipes of The World's Best Chefs, full of food that only chefs with mighty brigades could produce.
Beside us was Ferran Adria's El Bulli, the book that earned a collective gasp when it was published with the cover price of 100 (now changing hands on Amazon at 220). Next along was the book from Noma in Copenhagen the restaurant that last year ousted El Bulli as the Best Restaurant in the World.
I went to Noma once a couple of years ago and ate things I'd never heard of before: blik roe, Gotland truffles, a bouillon of birch wine, monkfish with two kinds of seaweed, salsify with milk skin, reindeer cooked in hay.
Chef Rene Redzepi specialises in locally foraged foods and uses only ingredients sourced north of the 59th parallel. It was weird but brilliant.
So what ambition could we expect from chef Alastair Ross in this rural outpost?
Thankfully, there was nothing experimental on the menu, just half a dozen sensible, attainable dishes that included lamb, beef, pigeon, and venison.
I went for one of the veggie starters, a salad of figs, beetroot and blue cheese with a honey truffle dressing. It was pretty as any of the pictures in Ross's hefty library but even better it tasted wonderful with a series of perfectly balanced flavours: earthy beetroot matched with sweet pears, a sweet honey dressing with just a whiff of truffle and finally a pleasant crunch of walnut. Exquisite.
Another starter of smoked haddock, mussels, hand rolled linguini and curry butter sauce was a more substantial option and had us mopping up the juices with their excellent homemade breads: white, walnut and raisin, and date and rosemary.
A mains special of the day of sea bass, chorizo, mussels and spaghetti was a pleasing stew topped with a generous and carefully cooked sea bass fillet, not dissimilar in its combination structure from the previous starter. It should have come with a smoked salmon croissant but didn't. Pity. Still, it was a lovely dish, a light fresh, delicate broth, yet full of flavour.
By contrast the beef steak was a stout cut of fillet, balanced on top of an amalgam of bacon and crushed potato, balanced on top of a bed of green beans. As a three storey piece of multicoloured architecture it will doubtless be photographed one day for the Alastair Ross Cookbook and, of course, the moment the steak knife went in it was reduced to rubble.
The medium rare fillet though was as tender as a baby and the mash a savoury comfort. After unwisely scoffing all the nibbles and most of the bread, my driver came to a grinding halt two-thirds of the way through what was a major plateful.
From a solid selection of modish British desserts, a childhood obsession with peanut butter sandwiches led inexorably to the peanut butter parfait with Bailey's and mocha ice cream and blueberries. It lived up to expectation with sweet blueberries cooked just enough to let the juices run; and the parfait was a combination of nutty crunch, sweetness and saltiness topped with a bitter-sweet mocha ice cream. A lot going on for each mouthful but Ross pulled it off again.
With a reasonable bill settled, coffee and petit fours declined, we were out in the cold again, the wind howling straight in from Scandinavia where Rene Redzepi was presumably poring over his milk skin and birch broth. Thankfully, the Oak Tree has restrained any wilder instincts to experiment with oak bark and acorns. Their natural talent for putting the right food in the right setting will do just fine.
The Oak Tree, Hutton Magna, Richmond, North Yorkshire, DL11 7HH 01833 627371. Open: Tue-Sun 6.30pm-9.30pm. Price: Dinner for two including wine, coffee and service 94. No website.
YP MAG 15/1/11