Restaurant review: Fairfax Arms, Helmsley

To be declared the Best Sunday Lunch in Yorkshire is some accolade. We know a thing or three about a Sunday roast in this county and to be called the best is praise indeed.

The Fairfax Arms at Gilling East:  Half roast chicken Sunday lunch.
The Fairfax Arms at Gilling East: Half roast chicken Sunday lunch.

The proud recipient of the award is the Fairfax Inn at Gilling, North Yorkshire. Given the only table I could manage to secure for a Sunday lunch was the last serving at 1.30pm, it seems the word is already out there.

I can only imagine that Gilling is quite the sleepy country idyll when not packed with cars vying for the elusive parking places close to the pub. On a sunny afternoon, every table outside the pub was full and inside just the same. There was no greeting from the staff as they were all heads down and busy. The atmosphere was frenetic to say the least, and though only to be expected, I have seen places busier yet much calmer.

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We had arrived a little ahead of schedule but worryingly, by the time they wanted us seated the guests joining us had still not arrived. There was no flexibility from the gentleman checking off names at the bar; if they didn’t arrive by 2pm the kitchen would be closed he told us rather firmly. They did arrive with 15 minutes to spare by which time, unfortunately, we had already started eating.

Given the promise of an award-winning lunch our order was beef, pork and chicken roasts, but fish and chips, salmon and a vegetable lasagne are also available. And, for those with the appetite and the time, there is also a choice of 10 traditional starters.

With the meats, there was little complaint. The slices of strip loin beef were thick and cooked pink(ish). There was more gristle than acceptable, but we grudgingly agreed this was perhaps once again due to the lateness of our lunch. The pork was without fault, the chicken likewise, so no complaints there. The poor old Yorkshire pudding often takes a knock in busy pubs, but not here. They were excellent, beautifully risen, golden and freshly cooked. So far so good on that element of lunch, but sadly the vegetables completely unravelled the rest.

The first dish to arrive was a saucer-sized dish bearing a couple of cauliflower florets bathed in cheese sauce, four strips of roast parsnip and a spoonful of tired red cabbage. Duck fat roasted potatoes also arrived, but both looked and tasted just as tired. According to the waitress, this was vegetables for two. She seemed a little flustered at our request for more veg which made me suspicious that the kitchen was running low. The new portion duly arrived five minutes later with a bowl of inedible, barely cooked broccoli, green beans, and more red cabbage. I rest my case. Did they care? No. Even when we pointed out the raw state, she replied the chef would be informed and that was the last we heard about it.

No problems with puddings though. A very clever sticky toffee sundae came all warm and luscious in a large wine glass. Warm caramel sauce slowly melted the ice cream soaked into the cake, creating a wonderful sticky delicious mess and voted the triumph of the lunch. Though to be fair the Banana Split was a worthy rival.

By the end of pudding, things were quietening down in the pub and the staff too calmed down but just a little too much. It took a while to get the bill and when it arrived it was wrong. On top of the disappointment of the miniature vegetable offerings, there was a charge of £5 for extra veg (the uncooked ones). Yes, it was a mistake but it took a wait to sort it out.

I fully understand that a kitchen, when hammered for hours, will begin to tire towards the end of service, but it shouldn’t. The food served at the end of service costs just the same as that at the beginning. Sadly, the staff also seemed far less interested with us towards the end of the lunch. Busy laughing and joking with each other at the bar, their eyeballs were well and truly off the remaining diners.

A great Sunday lunch is not just about the food. The welcome, the atmosphere, the care and attention to guests is just as important. My conclusion was the lunch was OK, but award winning? Not for me. At £80 for four and only a few drinks included in that, I would expect far better.

I appreciate you were busy that day at the Fairfax, of which you should be glad, not take it out on your guests.

• The Fairfax Arms Main Street, Gilling East, Helmsley, YO62 4JH, phone 01439 788212; food served 12-2pm and 6-9pm, Sunday lunch 12-3pm.