In 2012 the Box Tree in Ilkley celebrated its 50th birthday. Fifty years since Malcolm Reid and Colin Long opened their jewel box of a restaurant serving food, the like of which Yorkshire, let alone England, had never enjoyed before. In 1962 tomato juice was considered an acceptable starter followed by mixed grill and fruit salad. The Box Tree was different. According to an early menu they were offering quiche lorraine of smoked salmon, mussels à la marinière, chicken chasseur and le scampi fritti. Not very sophisticated by today’s standards, but revolutionary in the 1960s.
There have been many tears and tantrums in the intervening years, not least with an ill-starred return by former pupil Marco-Pierre White. But in 2004 when Simon and Rena Gueller took on the mantle, things calmed down as owner and executive head chef Simon successfully brought stability to the famous restaurant. Within months of taking over he was awarded a Michelin star and has held it ever since.
That said, there has been a revolving door of head chefs, though that’s not unusual in this business. When Lawrence Yates (ex-Midsummer House, Cambridge) left after a couple of years, and new lad Mark Owens (ex-Star Inn and Craven Heifer, Addingham) took over, it seemed like a good excuse for a return visit.
It’s never been cheap to eat here; the à la carte is £65, the menu gourmand £75. The wine list is legendary not only for its vintages and terroirs but for its prices. There are £3,000 bottles in bond that take four weeks to clear. If you want one, be sure to give them notice. The list itself has 1er grand cru Chateaux Margaux at £960 a bottle, though to be fair there are plenty around the £25 mark and a number by the glass, all of which makes Sunday lunch at £37 a comparative bargain.
It’s all relative of course. This is not an all-you-can-eat for £10.95 job, but when you get a three-course lunch and a team of smartly suited front-of-house staff to look after you, seat you in the lounge and bring olives and almonds it presents fair value.
The gilded interior has changed too, a little. The old masters, antiques and knick-knackery have mostly gone, but Reid and Long would still recognise it as their Box Tree; the armchairs, the hunting prints and the leaded stained glass windows that muffle the sight and sound of the traffic. It feels like a restaurant from another era, a time of starched white tablecloths, charger plates, elaborate fork shifting manoeuvres, silver service and fish knives. Formality is all still here, alive and well.
The food though speaks for itself. We start with a ballotine of salmon, a dish that has been on every Gueller menu as far back as I can remember. It’s raw salmon pressed and wrapped in fresh herbs served with a varying list of accompaniments. Today it’s with a mini lobster cocktail topped with caviar and finished with slivers of radish and strips of crisp rye bread. Fear not the raw salmon, it’s wonderfully delicate placing the mild salmon against the richness of lobster and a satisfying crunch of rye. No wonder it’s a menu staple.
Another starter makes the best of new season Wye Valley asparagus, asparagus puree, truffle and soft-boiled quail eggs coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Broken open they provide an instant sauce for the asparagus, altogether a pitch perfect spring dish.
If their Sunday roast – beef sirloin and Yorkshire pudding or lamb shoulder with seasonal veg – is no stretch for the chefs, it does test the basics of a decent roast and all the trimmings. Generous slabs of aged sirloin served pink, crisp spuds fluffy as clouds and Yorkshire pudding filled with a rich red wine gravy (though some would argue that red wine in proper English gravy is a heresy). It’s confident assured cooking and as good as a roast dinner gets.
There are a couple of fish choices, too: cod with razor clams or lemon sole with brown shrimps. The latter is nicely cooked, well balanced, with a beautiful spring plate of broad beans, their tough outer skins removed, baby carrots, asparagus, new potatoes and a tender fillet of lemon sole topped with heady mace-scented shrimps laced with butter.
Desserts feature a Granny Smith apple soufflé with Armagnac sauce, another of Gueller’s well-travelled dishes, but we go for the chocolate parfait with coconut sorbet which is subtly excellent, and a raspberry sorbet that accompanies a rather less good lemon curd tart and piped meringue. Tough pastry spoils an otherwise decent dish and is the only duff note in the meal.
So what does this Sunday lunch tell us of new chef Mark Owens? To be frank, not a lot in terms of fresh directions but all credit to him and his team for sending out three well-cooked, exacting courses. In the end though, the Box Tree belongs to Simon Gueller. He brought it back from the brink and then nurtured it to make it his own, smoothly updating a revered old master. Good to see that the Box Tree is still holding up to its illustrious history.
The Box Tree Restaurant, 35-26 Church Street, Ilkley LS29 9DR. 01943 608484, theboxtree.co.uk. Open: Wednesday to Saturday, 7-9.30pm; Friday & Saturday, 12-2pm: Sunday, 12-3pm. Dinner for two with wine and service: £180.