A recent customer at the newly opened Paradise Cafe said: “I won’t have a pudding; I’ll wait for the petits fours with my coffee,” recalls much-garlanded chef Frances Atkins. We are sitting at the chef’s table with a view to the kitchen and where she is toasting bread on the grill and retelling the story. “Not here, you won’t,” she says, roaring with laughter.
It’s an understandable assumption. For 23 years Atkins was the chef/patron of the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill, and for 16 of them the holder of a Michelin star. But no longer is she the queen of the petit four, the amuse-bouche or the truffled quail, she is on a new trajectory with two of her old colleagues, in a cool cafe at Daleside Nurseries, in Killinghall, near Harrogate.
The cafe opens for breakfast, lunch, which is what we are here for, and afternoon tea. It is, of course, a very superior cafe, serving what Atkins describes as “nutritious, tasty food that’s not been messed about with”. It is all those things and much more.
Take the menu: smoked salmon and mackerel with herb cream cheese and herb salad; tagine of lamb with aubergine, lemon and Yorkshire spelt; cod with oriental cabbage and bergamot. There’s belly pork with beans and mustard mash; butternut fritters, barbequed chicken; seared scallops and seared tuna. Half a dozen starters, a dozen mains - and I want all of them.
But first some context. In 1997 Atkins and her husband Bill bought the Yorke Arms and took it from a very good ham and egg roadhouse to one of Britain’s finest restaurants. The couple sold up in 2017 but Frances continued to cook for the new owners until Covid struck – when their involvement closed for good.
With two long-time colleagues, John Tullett, general manager and front of house, and head chef Roger Oliver, she bought a silver Airstream caravan, parked it at Daleside and began serving delicious food off disposable bamboo plates in a greenhouse.
For the next 12 months they planned and built a new cafe and last month it opened. It’s a big, bright, fresh, white space filled with banana palms and tropical scenes on the walls. A terrace with outdoor tables has views across the lake. Tullett is on form, just like the old days, taking coats, bringing menus and drinks. Yes please, we will have a chilled glass of Sicilian Vermentino.
For all Atkins’ claims her food is simple, it’s not that simple. Take my seared tuna: it’s been briefly shown a very hot pan and sliced to reveal the rare inside. Then the sliced tuna is placed on some lightly pickled red peppers, cubes of chorizo are scattered here and there, little gem leaves have been given a creamy Caesar dressing and tucked discreetly under a leaf, a flavour bomb of minced sundried tomato pimped with lime and black garlic. I vote it my dish of the year.
A cheese tart has perfectly crisp pastry holding a tender wobbly cheese custard, a scattering of Parma-style ham, onion marmalade and shards of crunchy green apple. The mains are equally inspiring. Fat scallops perked with lime and ginger set upon a silky Jerusalem artichoke puree with a touch of ginger, then layers of thinly sliced, buttery potatoes, and a garnish of apple puree. Similarly, my brill has been accurately cooked, then served with purple sprouting broccoli, wild mushrooms and “cheese potato” which in another life she would have called pommes aligot.
Desserts come from the afternoon tea menu: apricot and almond cake, lemon drizzle, chocolate torte, so it’s a Bakewell for me and for Liz, a nutmeg-dusted custard tart topped with Yorkshire rhubarb.
All this time Atkins has been working calmly behind the counter. In this informal setting she can, she says, modify the menu daily and adapt easily to whatever comes through the door, whether it’s seasonal rhubarb, purple sprouting broccoli or a trug of wild garlic.
Don’t come here looking for frills and flummery, for tasting menus and starched linens or a wine list the size of a bible. But come for a relaxed, informal cafe, with fresh, nutritious and exciting food, run by three accomplished professionals.
Paradise Cafe, Daleside Nurseries, Ripon Road, Killinghall, Harrogate HG3 2AY. 01423 877109, www.paradisewithfrj.co.uk. Open, Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-4pm. Lunch for two, inc. bottle wine and service, £100