Rattle Owl is the unsung hero of the York dining scene

Rattle Owl is the unsung hero of the York dining scene, as Jill Turton discovers. Pictures by Bruce Rollinson.

I’ve long been a fan of the Rattle Owl in York, an inviting restaurant on Micklegate which I reckon is one of the best in the city along with Skosh, Roots and Cochon Aveugle. Yet whenever the national critics risk taking the East Coast line up north, the Rattle Owl seems to fall beneath their radar.

That’s a shame because chef Tom Heywood deserves more attention as he really is up there with the best of them.

And it’s not just about the chef. Much of the Rattle Owl’s dynamism comes from owner Clarissa O’Callaghan who I met years ago when I found myself sitting next to her at a restaurant pop-up, where someone thought it a good idea to serve dinner to 50 people in a freezing basement with no kitchen.

Trout tartare, foraged herbs;

As the clatter bounced off the walls, she shouted into my ear that she was a human rights lawyer in London but long held an ambition to open a restaurant and was looking for premises in her native York.

Fast forward to 2015 when I heard she’d given up her job and bought the former Blakehead Bookshop on recession-hit Micklegate.

Through struggles with builders, architects and archaeologists who found Roman remains in the basement and stayed for six months, she managed to create a restaurant that today has individuality and warmth, thanks to a lovely interior of rich honey-coloured floorboards, shiny black panelling, cosy booths, vintage brass light fittings and original art. The whole place feels aglow.

We are here for lunch and for Tom Heywood’s eight-course tasting menu. Heywood arrived here some 18 months ago via the Pheasant at Harome.

Scallop, cider sauce, baby gem and apple

In an interview for The Yorkshire Post during lockdown, he credited US chef Dan Barber and his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York State, for what he described as life-changing inspiration (watch Barber on Netflix’s Chef’s Table). His farm-to-table philosophy may not easily translate to urban York, but Heywood has some excellent producers and growers and, like Barber, a genuine commitment to sustainability.

With the menu comes a comprehensive description of those suppliers, like York’s award-winning community market Food Circle, who supply nuts, seeds, honey, veg and more; the Cocoa House for chocolate; Paul Cosgriff for crunchy sourdough loaves; Stringers for organic rapeseed oil and rye; and then a whole host of foraged leaves, flowers and berries that during the course of our meal is set out on a plate for us to touch, smell and nibble on.

The menu at the Rattle Owl is sealed and secret (unless you prefer to open it to know what’s coming). It would be unfair (and tedious) to describe in detail every one of the eight courses, but – spoiler alert – here is some of what we ate. To begin, there are three different snacks, so eight courses become 11. They were a tender chicken wing flavoured with rosemary salt and garnished with leek flowers, a turnip bhaji and our favourite, a tiny and delicate cheese tart with candied walnuts.

Then sea trout that has been cured with foraged herbs, wild horseradish, rye and radish; crab tart with pastry as thin as a whisper and filled not just with crab, but other stuff too – chard and apple, aerated crab bisque, kombu seaweed, burnett leaves and chervil. I can’t claim to understand how all that comes together, I just know it is a beautiful tart.

Whitby crab, chard, apple, bisque

Ditto the hand dived scallop with ingredients just as baffling, the scallop glazed with apple and nicely scorched and caramelised. Then to intensify the flavour, dried scallop roe and almonds all deliciously bathed in soothing cider sauce.

Herb-fed chicken breast has been stuffed with wild garlic and chicken mousse topped with fried crumbs with a kick of wild garlic mayo and then butter sauce cut with garlic oil, so that it looks like something that might have leaked from an old banger and tastes sensational.

Mutton has been pepped up with a spiced sauce, then goat’s curd, asparagus and little parcels of mutton shoulder wrapped in wild garlic and garnished with a garlic bud. A refreshing crème fraiche sorbet and sorrel granita follows, then rhubarb pavlova and a tray of petit fours with our coffee.

Eight brilliant courses but a lot of food. I’m beginning to feel like a foie gras goose that’s been force-fed. The waiting staff ask how we like it – delicious but just too much.

Garden rhubarb pavlova, nettle and white chocolate crémeux, nettle meringue, white chocolate tuile and candied nettle.

However, the young couple at the next table have travelled from Darlington to celebrate a birthday and say they love food and eating out and to prove it reel off the names of chefs and restaurants and even dishes they remember. They’ve loved their lunch here, and no it’s not too much and to prove it they go for the additional cheese course.

I loved it too. Tom Heywood is on a roll and with the energetic Clarrie O’Callaghan alongside, it looks to be a winning partnership. Then a few days after my visit I get a text telling me I am not the first to find it all too much and they have decided to offer four courses (£45) as well as eight (£85). Result!

The Rattle Owl, 104 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX, 01904 658658, www.rattleowl.co.uk. Open: Thursday-Saturday, 1pm for lunch, and Wednesday-Saturday, 6 to 9pm, Sunday, 12 to 5pm. Price: four/eight-course dinner for two inc. bottle wine and service approx. £128/£215.

Welcome 5/5

Food 5/5

Atmosphere 5/5

Rattle Owl York

Prices 5/5