The respected Good Pub Guide recently announced the Blue Lion at East Witton as its Inn of the Year 2014. Now, I am not privy to why, but standing outside the inn on a winter’s night, I think I can guess.
The night was dark and bitterly cold. However, through the window, I saw a room full of cheer, candlelight and a roaring fire. Opening the door the good-natured noise was striking, and quietly I am grateful I booked a table before making the hour-long drive. Had they turned us away I would have been distraught.
There is a welcoming restraint in the decoration at the inn; pictures are a little crooked and stone flags cover the floors. The old tables, settles and chairs glisten from meticulous polishing and wear their age well. We could also have chosen to eat in the restaurant tucked away to the back of the bar. This is another delightful room though slightly more formal but pretty nonetheless.
Seated in the draughty window means we are just a little too far from the fire to benefit from the heat. We did, however, have a good view of the many blackboard menus. Starting from the left, there was a selection of wines, starters and a few specials. A 45-degree turn of the head revealed a gargantuan mains board. At this point I started to fret. Only an extremely capable kitchen could possibly handle the sheer scale and diversity on offer here.
The dishes are robust and gutsy, and it was lovely to see old friends like a confit, pan-fried calves’ liver, terrines and pâtés. Understandably, as the Blue Lion is part of the Jervaulx Estate, game features prominently along with just about everything that walks, flies or swims. There is a specific menu for vegetarians, but you have to ask for it. I did, and I swear the waiter muttered something about there being no hope for me as he walked away.
Despite our clearly opinionated waiter, the approach here is relaxed. No-one is pushing us to order wine and all dishes are inclusive of vegetables. Bread comes without asking and there is no charge for it. How refreshing.
We were a very happy pair and so wished we had booked one of their lovely rooms and made a night of it. By the end of the meal, we were glad we had not.
A starter of pan-fried wood pigeon breast with beetroot, chocolate and a hazelnut dressing created a flurry of excitement across the table. After all, chocolate and pigeon – never mind the beetroot – together, were probably the most 21st-century and exciting dish on offer.
Sadly, when the dish arrived, it was icy cold. The pigeon breast was cooked on the right side of the colour spectrum, but was freezing. As was the beetroot puree. We asked the waiter if the dish was supposed to be a sub-arctic temperature but he simply whisked it away.
My scallops with herb gnocchi in a bisque kept us happily amused while we waited for the return of the pigeon. The let’s “find the gnocchi” game resulted in the decision that two rounds of softly mashed potatoes do not gnocchi make. The scallops were kind of OK but had a slightly metallic aftertaste.
Eventually, the pigeon did return but in no way resembled the previous plate of food. I mean, it was a totally different dish. The plate and the food were warm (major change and very welcome). The beetroot had metamorphosed into slices of heritage varieties; the soft, pink breast was now a slab of leather. Three attempts at cutting failed. We never dared to ask what happened to the chocolate.
Thankfully, oven-roasted monkfish was as good as it could possibly be. My husband struggled with the ceps, but I tasted them, and they were also fine. Less exceptional was the red-wine risotto. Creating a creamy, deep-flavoured risotto is based on the premise of a long slow cooking to burst the starch grain in the rice. This then allows the flavours and textures to become inextricably entwined. Here though the rice was undercooked, the wine raw, with a bitter edge from the tannins.
Calves’ liver was cooked beautifully, and though I chose not to eat much, can only praise the quality. The accompanying potato terrine was dry and overcooked and despite the promise of carrots, they never appeared. Staff were, by this time, overcompensating for the problems by being over attentive – which is hardly a fault but does not fill half-empty tummies.
There was the promise of pudding being the redeemer of this hitherto disaster when a pretty plate of Granny Smith bavarois, sorbet and toffee apples arrived. We sighed in appreciation of the lovely dessert before us. Sadly, this too was short-lived. Lovely as it was to look at, it had zero taste.
The bill arrived with the cost of both starters removed though still leaving over £80 to pay. We were not happy and just wanted to go home.
The Blue Lion is beautiful and has been a treasure of the North Yorkshire dining scene for over 20 years. Many, many happy diners have passed through its doors. The Good Pub Guide also clearly had its reasons for giving it the Inn of the Year plaudit. So, what happened the night we visited? I have simply no idea.
The Blue Lion, East Witton, Leyburn, DL8 4SN. 01969 624273, www.bluelion.co.uk