Restaurant review: The Eskdale, Castleton

Like a lot of you, I took up a hobby during lockdown.

The Eskdale has become a smart country pub. (Bruce Rollinson).
The Eskdale has become a smart country pub. (Bruce Rollinson).

No, not knitting, but vicariously charting the progress on Instagram of folk doing house makeovers. Lord knows this place is falling down around my ears but somehow I didn’t get round to it, unlike Marcus and Kirsty at the Eskdale on the North York Moors.

I knew it in its previous life as an old boozer with sticky carpets and nicotine ceilings so I was keen to watch the gradual transformation into what was starting to look like rather a smart pub with – if the projections were true – decent food.

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Weeks went by. First snow hampered progress. Then Covid struck. Weeks turned into months. Then an announcement was made in November 2020 saying the services of Murray Wilson had been secured and I went from mildly interested to gripped.

Line-caught Whitby cod, asparagus, turnip and mussels. (Bruce Rollinson).

Wilson, late of Rudding Park’s Horto, Harrogate’s Norse and the Yorke Arms via some show called MasterChef, studied under Gordon Ramsay at London’s Claridge’s, travelled the world and then came home. So a hugely experienced and talented chef fetches up in an old pub in the wilds of Yorkshire; sound familiar?

It’s a balmy summer evening and the drive across the moors is peppered with the sound of skylarks, with swifts swooping across huge skies. We take a glass of something sparkling and a decent pint of Black Sheep in the garden.

The menu is short, and full of promise: three starters, four mains, two desserts and a cheese plate.

White onion veloute is a celebration of summer, laced with Baron Bigod for oomph, and a Borrower’s jug of wild garlic jus poured at the table.

Sea buckthorn tart.

Creamy Whitby crab is treated with Isle of Wight tomato, lovage flecks, dill fronds and a blast of wasabi; with tiny black squid crackers, it’s a pretty plate of food, though lacking just one pinch of salt. Line-caught Whitby cod turns up with steamed greens and a little pile of cockles – such a simple, beautifully executed dish which gives the fish star billing.

Anchoring the whole thing together is a ponzu sauce which has smoked heather from the moors running through it. Wow.

If I see hogget on a menu I’m helpless. Here it’s loin and belly – both with oceans of flavour and again served deceptively simply, with peas, tiny buttons of potatoes and velvety pureed aubergine – the final flourish an immense lamb sauce which talks of days of preparation, richly reduced with a sweetness which comes from caramelised local honey.

The owners, Marcus Boxshall-Smith and his partner Kirsty, first clapped eyes on the place nine years ago. “We had our second date in the beer garden! We went on to do other things but when the sale notice went up we knew the time was right. We picked up the keys on February 17, 2020 – just three weeks before the world locked down.”

Their five-month refurbishment plan turned into 13 months. The vibe is calm greens and polished wood floors, beams and fresh flowers. There’s a wood stove and sofas for lounging on chilly days.

Service is sweet, which is down to Kirsty, whose background in hospitality means she’s recruited and trained her cheery young team well.

Desserts don’t disappoint; an elegant sea buckthorn tart has a pop of colour, and something called simply “Strawberry” is so much more; sort of cheesecake, sort of mousse, sort of marvellous.

The tasting menu will set you back £45 for five courses, or just swing by for lunch, which includes the likes of Yorkshire pigeon with beets, endive and walnut (£10) and the Eskdale Burger with triple cooked chips. I’d sit in the garden all day long with any of the above and a glass or two of Albarino.

There’s a lot to like about the Eskdale; from the off you know you’re in safe hands. They’ve created a comfortable country pub with fabulous food – there’s an easy charm about the place you don’t often get with a menu of this calibre, and that’s one of the hardest things to pull off.

Wilson wears his considerable skills lightly, but this is assured, imaginative cooking with beautifully balanced flavours. It’s the kind of place I’ve been daydreaming about during the last 15 months.

The Eskdale, Station Road, Castleton. YO21 2EU. Tel: 01287 669659. Opening times: Monday - Friday: 10am - 11pm; Saturday: 10am - 11pm; Sunday: 11am - 10pm.