HQ Restaurant at the Cedar Court Grand Hotel, York.
Certainly, in one fell swoop it has become York city centre's grandest, smartest hotel. It looks great. Built in 1906 and Grade II listed, this high Edwardian pile was long the headquarters of North Eastern Railways and, latterly, the head office of GNER. The restoration, supervised by English Heritage, stints on nothing. Ugly office partitions and boarded-up fireplaces have been stripped out to reveal acres of marble and terrazzo, mosaic and oak panelling, decorative cornices and architraves. Modern paintings and giant designer lampshades – a big feature of the interior – throw all that period detail into relief.
In the Grand Bar where we take our drinks, with a choice of 10 gins for my tonic, the lighting is intentionally subdued. All is rich and clubby with dark walls, leather armchairs, chesterfields and crushed velvet curtains. Next door, the Whisky Lounge serves a book-long choice of whisky in "snifter" glasses and cigars from an antique oak humidor.
By contrast the HQ restaurant is positively floodlit. Done out in degrees of beige, it's a handsome room with well-spaced tables and expensive glassware and cutlery. The windows reveal the illuminated city walls and the Minster, a five-star view marred only by the occasional drunken hen party tottering off for the Micklegate Run.
We limit ourselves to a bottle of New Zealand Paua Bay pinot noir, which is nothing that special but at 45 is still at the bargain end of a list that starts at 25. It is poured with practised hand by a charming young sommelier. It tastes warm. The bottle feels warm. Our sommelier is sure it has been stored correctly – citing the recommended temperature – while simultaneously offering to change it for a cooler bottle. Almost insisting, in fact. We decline, don't want the fuss, it's cooled down now anyway, but the unequivocal offer was impressive. The customer rules.
Indeed, the army of service is near impeccable all evening. Whatever you may think of the practice of having one waiter hold a tray, while another, more senior bod places the dish reverentially before you, this is a slick operation with no-one needing to ask "Who's having the duck?" And, if you don't want meat, there's a substantial vegetarian menu.
Our "journey of gastronomic discovery" begins with those complimentary appetisers now popping up in aspirational joints. First, there are bites served on a slate plate in the bar then arriving at the table is a heady slug of mushroom soup and truffle oil. Lovely though it is, it rather trumps our real starter of wild mushrooms and truffle oil and poached quail's eggs. Might we have been warned when ordering?
Another starter of crisp Parma ham, a quivering mould of herb pannacotta and a garnish of tomato, asparagus and wild mushrooms, is quite a picture. The ham, balanced artfully on its edge and pressed so flat it might have been ironed, is delicious. Unfortunately, the pannacotta support act proves to be more a sensation than a taste. There is no discernable herb flavour, nor clear evidence of the advertised citrus oil. With all the staff employed here, does someone have the job of actually tasting the dishes they send out?
A beautifully timed venison loin levels the score. Served on a potato cake with spinach, girolle mushrooms (yes, chef likes his mushrooms), asparagus sprigs and a smear of butternut squash it is pretty much textbook. Only some sour blackberries detract from a nicely balanced, expertly cooked dish.
And while our other main of poached lamb fillet was lean, tender and well timed, however prettily arranged, it was a fairy portion. The petite slivers of lamb came with braised onions on a disc of pastry, a few tiny girolles, a dour, dry tortellini parcel and finally a scattering of potato cubes so hilariously small we took one home to measure it. It was just 6mm or a quarter of an inch across. Without wolfing anything down, the plate was gone in a flash, all 24.50 of it.
Perversely, the lamb is followed by a compelling hunk of a dessert modestly called Chocolate and Pistachio. It's a carefully wrought cylinder of dark chocolate filled with layers of chocolate mousse and pistachio, topped with pistachio ice cream and a "hat" of white chocolate, pretty enough for Ladies' Day at York races but hefty enough to take a jockey overweight. Our journey ends with a second dessert of wild strawberries and fromage blanc mousse. Except they're not – wild, that is. Blatantly, these are regular strawberries chopped up small. The head waiter confirms the obvious. No, madam, they are not wild strawberries. A supply problem, "but chef does usually put them in". Not good enough for a 9 dish with wild strawberries given top billing. Not a five-star moment.
I've had lunch and dinner now at the new Cedar Court Grand. As a hotel and a venue it's a terrific new asset for York. Yes, the prices are special occasion or expense account, but the setting is sumptuous and the service superb. So is some of the cooking but there are issues with consistent flavouring and balanced dishes. Until some of these flaws are ironed out as flat as its ham, the restaurant's five-star rating will continue to be its own.
n Cedar Court Grand Hotel and Spa, Station Rise, York YO1 6GD.
Tel: 01904 380038; Email: reservations@ cedarcourtgrand.co.uk; www. cedarcourtgrand.co.uk; Open: Every day 7pm-10pm. Price: Dinner for two with wine, coffee and service 122.
YP MAG 30/10/10