WHIRR, whirr, whirr. What's that? A child's pull-n-let go toy car? No, it was a wind-up torch on the next table, not what you'd expect in a dining room. Torch? Some fine dining lighting can be dim but this was a well-lit room in the Red Lion at Burnsall, and the ladies on the next table were on a skills weekend, plotting routes and so on, with maps. Hence the torch to see the small print. What price batteries? Dogs, including their guide's German Pointer, relaxed under the table
The location is near-perfect, an old travellers' inn by an arched bridge over the river, in Wharfedale at its loveliest, facing a village green and besieged by fells. There is competition, including in the village the Devonshire Fell, the Duke of Devonshire's satellite to the flagship Devonshire Arms, down-river in Bolton Abbey. The "Lion" has become the front-runner, an example of how a place can thrive when led from the front. It has not always been so in recent times and standards did not always meet expectations. Water under the bridge, and all that. Move on.
Andrew and Liz Grayson, the proprietors, retired putting their four daughters and two sons-in-law in charge. Sarah organises the weddings. Victoria does the books and her husband Jim Rowley (ex Angel, Hetton) is bar manager. The youngest daughters, twins Katy and Eleanor, deal with bookings and so forth. Katy is married to the head chef Olivier Verot (ex Quaglino's) who first came to the Red Lion in 1992 and whose cooking is a treat. Eleanor's partner Charlie Brown (ex The Tempest, Elslack) is second man in the kitchen. Sarah's daughter Alice helps to serve breakfasts and Katy's youngest daughter Mary (aged six) works in the office on Sunday morning. Favourite pop song? It should be Sly Stone's It's a Family Affair…
The visit being in October and the ducal moors producing a steady supply of grouse it would have been silly not to try one. These are young birds and do not require too much roasting. They are also popular – "flying off the board" was the advice when I rang up to book. At 16.95 they were well-priced. This is, for example, a whole 9 less than I was charged at the Blue Lion in East Witton.
In the grouse battle of the Lions, the Blue had a more flavoursome gravy but the Red gave better value, with a full set of traditional accompaniments all produced in the kitchen: cranberry jelly, bread sauce, game chips (potato crisps). The vegetables included well-peppered Savoy cabbage and Dauphinoise potatoes, this latter being an exemplary version of the French classic.
The bird was served with a slice of smoky bacon over its chest and a large cube of something I did not recognize. "Stuffing", explained George, the Bulgarian restaurant manager who looked after us very well. Stuffing but not as we know it, refined and unemphatic. The bird "spoke" enough anyway, served intact or carved in the kitchen, which loses nothing and avoids that "chase round the plate" experience using a normal knife and fork.
The table settings include quality claret red napkins and excellent bread, using bought-in dough baked at the Lion. The reason is that it saves time and gives consistency, and it is as good as I have had. Butter is changed when more bread is requested. These days the place is hands-on, aware. Through the window to the main bar the progress of the meal is observed and managed by Jim Rowley. The food matches the pace, with, for instance, a terrine of well-pressed rabbit and hazelnuts with a tangy pear jam, or crab salad (blended with chopped grapes) and delicious. The rabbit will continue through the autumn, with other first courses such as haggis, or smoked haddock fishcakes with poached egg. The grouse will make way for pheasant and partridge.
Sample main courses: fried plaice, meat and potato pie, seared cod with girolles and salsify risotto, fried trout with lemon and almond mash, various steaks of course. There's not much clue to sourcing on the menu but we do know that the vegetarian sausages are made by the village shop (now so popular it has opened a purpose-built "factory" to meet demand). I learnt from Victoria Rowley that the game is all sourced locally, either from Bolton Abbey or the Grimwith Estate. She adds: "The large majority of our meat is from R&J butchers from Kirby Malzeard but we do get certain items from Weatherheads and Kendalls butchers in Pateley Bridge."
Prices are reasonable. Typically 6 to 7 for "starters", most of which are sufficient as a light meal; say 12.50 for a vegetable curry main course, similar pricing for calves' liver with Puy lentils and spinach, fish pie with sauted leeks and cabbage, 13.50 for braised beef with horseradish-flavoured mashed potato and oxtail sauce. A sample dessert of pear millefeuille, sandwiching rhubarb compote, and hazelnut ice cream was 5.50 and marvellously wicked.
Wine measures include a handy 250ml glass. The pick of the beers are Theakston's best bitter or Taylor's Golden Best. A pint is better value than two halves.
The Red Lion Hotel, Burnsall, near Skipton, North Yorkshire BD23 6BU. Open every day. Tel 01756 720204 and firstname.lastname@example.org