Let me explain. Last May, a few hours into a big renovation job on this whitewashed former parish hospital on the corner of Castlegate, the builders came across a purpose-built tomb bricked up in the wall containing the mummified remains of a cat.
It was the custom apparently, in the 17th and 18th-centuries, to place the body of a stuffed cat into the wall of a house to ward off evil spirits. When Steve Patton, the co-owner of Becket’s, took over he risked the wrath of the spirits by burying said cat rather than putting it back into the wall, rightly fearful that dining alongside a rotting cat might not be a good selling point.
So far there have been no reports of harm to him or his customers so we took the risk and ducked in. It was the sort of day when we expected to be eating in near isolation. After all who but restaurant critics would be eating out midweek at lunch in gentle Knaresborough?
Quite a few, it turned out. The place was comfortably busy, with a group of girls, retired couples sensibly spending their pension on a good lunch and some men in suits. Come to think about it, it’s probably not so surprising the place fills up given the dearth of cut-above restaurants in the town. Becket’s could clean up.
The dining room is easy on the eye: uncluttered white walls, exposed brick and stone fireplace, wooden floor boards. And the menu is equally easy on the stomach and the pocket: burger, beef pie, gammon and egg, sausage and bubble and squeak at lunchtime, priced around £11. In the evening they trade up a notch or two with saddle of lamb, game pie, trio of lamb, beef and pork averaging £16 with fillet steak at £24. Steak is never cheap. Sunday lunch looks fair value at £19.95 for three courses.
We began with the soup of the day, a Thai fish soup with prawns, noodles some crunchy veg, a whiff of chilli and lemon grass in a coconut milk broth and topped with some miniature leaves. I’m happy to report it was as nice a bowl of Thai soup I’ve had in ages and better than from some of Yorkshire’s Thai kitchens. Beautifully judged, not too fiery, not too sweet, just right.
For mains we ordered Caesar salad and a rocket, feta and roast pepper tart. The tart, or rather two tarts, were discs of puff pastry, topped with the cheese and pepper. The first tart was simple, but nicely prepared and presented. The second went into a doggy bag and later confirmed the original good impression.
Caesar salad, the American classic that was supposedly invented in 1924 by Caesar Cardini at his restaurant in Tijuana, just over the US border in Mexico, has been subject to endless debate. Anchovies or no anchovies? Romaine lettuce or any old lettuce? Croutons or not? Raw egg or coddled egg in the dressing? The famous salad was supposedly invented on July 4 when Cardini had a restaurant full of people and had run out of anything much in the kitchen. He threw together what he could find in the fridge and then with some panache whipped up the dressing table-side.
I can’t vouch for the authentic recipe but I was once in Tijuana, a city that seems to exist mainly to get under-age American teenagers legless, and craned my neck at Hotel Caesar. I might even have made it in for an eponymous salad had my driver not been pulled over by the cops for doing a U-turn on the main drag.
Back in Knaresborough, the chicken Caesar salad had no anchovies, no croutons but a good creamy dressing over rocket leaves and a dusting of Parmesan, all topped with a tender chicken breast and plenty of bacon bits. It may have gone off-piste, but it was undeniably good.
Rather oddly, given our mains of pastry tart and salad, we were simultaneously and gratuitously served with new potatoes, chips and bread rolls, a carb fest that was far more than we could start let alone finish. I’ve asked chefs about this sort of overkill – after all, it’s costing them if their customers don’t buy a third course – and it’s always the same response: “Our customers expect it”. Yorkshire portions are alive and well.
But not for us. We didn’t have pudding. Didn’t even glance at the menu. I’ve checked since. We missed out on chocolate brownie with ice cream and raspberries, sticky toffee pudding, lemon tart, Tia Maria and white chocolate cheesecake, Eton Mess and cheese and biscuits. Assuming they measured up to the solid standard of what went before, they’ve put together an attractive package.
And if that package could be gift-wrapped with a few more smiles from the staff, then there would be even more pleasure in the unwrapping.
Becket’s, 25 Castlegate, Knaresborough, HG5 8AR. 01423 869918, www.becketsrestaurant.co.uk. Open: Tue 6-9pm, Wed-Fri 11.30am-2.30pm & 6pm-9pm, Sat 11.30am-9.30pm & Sun 11am-3pm
Price: Dinner approx. £30 per person plus wine.