In no time at all, Stephen, supported by general manager Yohan Barthelemy, had gone from operating in a shipping container at Spark, the community space on Piccadilly, to a small but efficient room off the bar in the Gillygate pub.
Then, thanks to the growing demand for his food, they felt ready for the next daunting step, but before the ink was barely dry on a restaurant lease, the anchors were slammed on when Boris Johnson told us all to stay at home. Nevertheless, they made the most of the time given to them through the tough lockdowns to fit and kit out their new place on Micklegate.
And what a cracker of a place it is, all pared-back, concrete and industrial, with a long open kitchen down one side. However, the industrialisation is pulled back from any brutalist undertones with a lovely mix of a wooden floor, banquette seating and polished tables and chairs, each with plenty of space around them to make the timidest customers feel safe.
I was also charmed by the covered courtyard space with a couple of intimate booths where I assume bubbles of friends or family will have gathered during the restrictions, and according to Stephen, still do.
As both previous eateries were small, it was easy for Andrew and Yohan to operate with just the two of them. Still, the Micklegate place is larger, so it is encouraging to see several young people working both front of house and as trainee chefs alongside Andrew.
Indeed, the staff who came to our table could not have been more pleasant and chatty while maintaining a professional manner; whoever is training them is doing a great job.
Stephen has a strong ethos regarding the food he buys, cooks and serves at Fish and Forest; it must be seasonal, sustainable, ethically reared or caught. In Stephen’s words, he is committed to traceability and responsibility of sourcing local ingredients, with a clear understanding of stock levels and supply chains. Understandably with these principles, the menu is small with just five starters and mains.
I pass on wild boar rillette; king scallops with Nudja, and wild mushroom and soy because I already know I want the Lindisfarne oysters. For me, these are a must, I love them, and they are getting harder to find on a menu. Here, they are fat, briny and supremely fresh.
Where Stephen can take little credit for the molluscs, his “Seacuterie” and pickles is a triumph of a plate which he has clearly spent time perfecting and getting all its bits and bobs to work well together. There is peppered sea trout, a fiery kimchi to liven things up; seaweed-dusted monkfish, stone bass and lightly pickled courgette and daikon.
I am into the fish tonight with a classically styled dish of wild halibut with green peppercorn sauce, a gratin Dauphinoise, fennel and roasted cauliflower. The dazzling whiteness and flakiness of the fish tell me how utterly fresh it is.
Stephen has a gift of seamlessly crossing the divide of cooking styles, zooming from modern to classic in a flash and innately choosing what style best suits the food. The fish, though, would have been my favourite dish if only he had trimmed away the belly fat from the halibut, a slightly annoying mistake that I didn’t expect from him.
A bowl of wild boar was the only dish we were not jumping all over with praise; the meat was a little tight and chewy and, despite its promise of earthiness with beets and squash, was a little underwhelming.
No complaints on the final few dishes with faultless crème brûlée, flavoured with sea buckthorn, a flavour I am partial to, and a runny, pungent Camembert with the reappearance of the pickled daikon and kimchi, plus a tomato relish, a sliver of focaccia and crackers.
I was thrilled to see the Fish and Forest team recognised in the recently announced Michelin plaudits for 2021. The acknowledgement for this small indie bistro working so hard to push the vital importance of sustainable fish and seafood, meat, game and veg is justly deserved.
That this produce then becomes exciting, inventive dishes we all can enjoy is even better. I wish them all the best and for a calmer time ahead and thank you for making York an even more exciting place to eat out.
Fish and Forest, 110 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX Tel: 01904 220587. Open Wednesday to Friday, 5.30-9pm, Saturday, 12-2pm and 5.30-9pm. Dinner for two with wine, £110.