Restaurant Review: The Blind Swine, York

How’s this for attitude? When I first came across the Blind Swine it was race week in York and they’d scrawled across their window: “Due to the rock and roll nature of our locals we are not able to cater for race day clientele. No suits or prom dresses, sorry.”

Luckily, I’d decided against my prom dress so ventured nervously in. It was “rammed” as they say. Music was bouncing off the walls at tinnitus-plus levels. A broad shouldered dude with bleached blonde hair and tattoos, a cross between an 80s heavy metal guitarist and Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard, was running streams of alcohol along the counter and setting light to them. Very droll, very rock and roll. It looked like one more uppity cocktail bar.

Except... except that the food side of the operation was booked out for the next three months. Really? They only opened in the spring. I smelt hype and went looking for their website. They don’t bother with one. No advertising, just word of mouth and a Facebook page. Their Tripadviser reviews were so gushing with “best meal of my life” praise for the food that my hype detector went into overdrive.

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Still, intrigue got the better of me and, three months later, I secured one of their precious tables and three willing guinea pigs, all old enough to be suffering from tinnitus anyway, and armed them with fair warning that we might be too old or too well-dressed to get through the door.

The first surprise was that the loud rock music had radically mellowed out. The dining area shimmered with candlelight. The greetings were suave. It was a picture of serenity, a proper restaurant except there was no menu and no choice, instead, eight small courses interspersed with matching drinks which were not wine but cocktails and beer. As an omnivore, I don’t mind lack of choice but unless the chef has something special to say I can’t normally be doing with tasting menus. Still, at £42 a head, it looked like Blind Swine had priced out the rocker crowd. Bring it on.

Any doubts were instantly dispelled. The first dish was an egg shell on a nest of hay, filled with a soft poached quail’s egg, a mushroom and truffle mixture and a leek hollandaise sauce. The last time someone presented me with quail’s egg on a nest of hay was at Noma in Copenhagen, the so-called best restaurant in the world. It was both strange and magnificent.

We were on a roll. A perfect mint julep on a mountain of ice came in a battered tin can. A terracotta plant pot had carrots and radishes “planted” in a horseradish emulsion and topped with rye “soil”. Pseud’s Corner? No, delicious. Bread was presented on a lump of broken concrete. And did he just say snail bread? Whatever mollusc was lurking there it was excellent bread, with excellent garlic and parsley butter to match.

This was theatre. A tiny dish of Whitby crab, avocado and grapefruit was matched with a botanical, gin-based cocktail. Red mullet with chorizo and dried corn was paired with Ferran Adria’s beer, he of El Bulli, the preceding best restaurant in the world. Yorkshire grouse, done to a T, came with spinach and lemon verbena, and a sauce of sloe gin poured from a shotgun shell casing and served with an azulata gin and tonic. Both were exhilarating.

Fittingly, the theme from Edward Scissorhands peaked on the music system. We were on the downhill stretch now with a pre-dessert of “steak tartare”. “I can’t eat that,” said a woman at the next table looking in horror at the ruby red “steak” topped with a raw “egg yolk”. It was another visual pun: minced water melon with spherified (the thing Heston Blumenthal does to make a liquid into a sphere) mango. The joke was fine, the flavour so-so. Nothing duff but the weakest dish so far.

Dessert proper made up for it, a superb salted caramel ice cream: “This will taste very salty but eat it with the souffle,” instructed O’Hare (a charmer beneath the mop), placing an immaculately risen pine and pear soufflé before us. He was right. Coffee was from a cool Aeropress machine on the table, a modern take on the 60s Cona machine, and the flame was then passed to us to toast real marshmallows.

In short, it was the most exciting meal I’ve had this year. Not for the pyrotechnics which were great fun; not for the place itself which is wholly professional but never high-faluting; but for the food, for its flair and its exceptional flavours. These guys, coolly pulling it together in an open-plan kitchen, really know what they’re doing. And who are they?

Never formally trained, O’Hare learned his trade at Judges, Yarm, Seaham Hall in County Durham, spent time under John Burton-Race in London then France before returning to York and Cedar Court Grand. His sidekick Chris Trundle is still learning on the job. Raw talent and commitment, having a go. Keep it up and they’ll be famous names.

Blind Swine, 22-24 Swinegate, York. 01904 634825. Opening hours: Wednesday to Saturday, sittings at 7.30pm and 8.30pm. The cocktail bar is open daily from 5pm to 3am. Price £42 per person for an eight-course tasting menu, including cocktails and coffee.