Here’s a prime stretch of real estate in the golden triangle between Harrogate, York and Wetherby. Seemingly untouched by recession, Rudding Park is the go-to place for weddings, conferences, golf breaks and spa days. B&B starts at £130 and rises to £389 for a night in the Follifoot Suite or you can go self-catering in one of their luxury lodges set in 2,000 acres of landscaped parkland.
I’ve only ever had afternoon tea at Rudding, on the terrace on a day that was so hot the icing was sliding off the cakes. I’ve had promising indications of the strength of the kitchen at occasional functions but I’ve never eaten in their flagship Clocktower restaurant until now.
Hotel restaurants are notoriously difficult to get right. I can think of at least three in Yorkshire that have spent an arm and a leg on rooms and décor and then blown it with pompous, overpriced and often incompetent food.
The Clocktower, I discovered, does it a whole lot better. Good looks go without saying in this Regency manor house and tasteful extensions: deep aubergine walls, contemporary art, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking sweeping lawns. At dusk it cranks up the glamour with a dashing pink chandelier and tables that are bathed in pools of light.
But as we’ve seen elsewhere, pay a good interior designer and you can get the look. What about the rest? It’s certainly popular. By 8.30pm on a Friday night every table is occupied, with overflow into the conservatory. At a family table in the private dining room kids are having fun with the automatic glass doors. Selling out 100 covers would surely gladden the heart of many a food and beverage manager.
Service is immaculate as well it might be with a small army of waist-coated waiters to greet us, take coats, bring menus and follow up with water, bread and wine. We’re paying handsomely for such attention. An average £12 for starters £25 for mains, £34 for fillet steak and £4 for sides. There’s nothing much on the wine list under £30. Going by the 175m glass it runs from £6.50 for a South African Sauvignon Blanc to an English Ortega at £9.50.
The menus make much of local sourcing. An alternative to the à la carte is the slightly cheaper Food Heroes £38.50 menu of three courses, with dishes “featuring an ingredient sourced in Yorkshire within a 75 mile radius of Rudding Park”. “An ingredient” gives them considerable scope as in the kiwi and lemon cheesecake watermelon chocolate chip sorbet. Presumably, it is the cheese and not the lemons or kiwi that is local. More enigmatically, the menu states the mileage on some dishes but not others. So cod has travelled 75 miles from Whitby, but no mileage for the quail, salmon or guinea fowl.
I can confirm, however, that the greens have travelled but a few yards because the week before I toured Rudding Park’s newly established kitchen garden. Designed by Matthew Wilson, ex-Harlow Carr and sometime panellist on Gardeners’ Question Time, he has put in 52 raised beds made from English oak and filled them with salad leaves, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. Black and red chillies are getting established in the greenhouse and there are espaliered fruit trees and soft fruit.
All this led me naturally to their starter of kitchen garden salad that begins with a puree of beetroot and builds from there with golden beets, artichoke hearts, char-grilled onions, radish, sorrel, miniature leaves and cresses, edible flowers and tiny mushrooms, though I didn’t spot the advertised truffle. Nonetheless it was a beautifully composed salad: crisp, fresh, light and delicate.
I could sense the guiding hand in this of the ever enthusiastic Stephanie Moon, the former executive chef, now consultant chef at Rudding Park. Stephanie has long been an advocate of fresh, local and foraged foods. You’ll know her from demonstrations at the Great Yorkshire Show and elsewhere and possibly from television’s Great British Menu, where she rendered the judges speechless with her Yorkshire mess, a dessert of meringue and rhubarb, squirted, smeared and artfully arranged without plates to be eaten straight off the table.
No-one’s eating off the table at the Clocktower, it’s far too refined for that, but the rest of the meal followed the same theme of good ingredients, elegantly presented. Whitby crab wrapped in cucumber slices was just that: sweet, white crabmeat allowed to speak for itself, no messing. The brown meat wrapped in filo could have been loosened up a bit, and a more generous hand with the samphire and the curry oil would have added more gusto but it was still a lovely dish.
Similarly the tandoori sea bass with a beurre noisette was subtle going on timid in its spicing, but the miniature pan of nutty Pink Fir Apple potatoes with coconut and spinach lifted it to excellent. Tender guinea fowl came with fondant sweet potato, roast baby onions and a rich gravy. Somewhat duffer notes were the tarragon gel – bitter and over-concentrated – and pickled mushrooms with vinegar overdose. And finally dessert, a simple but exemplary upside down warm gooseberry pudding and a jug of real vanilla custard.
Rudding Park maintains high standards. It opened in 1977 but looks as if it could have opened yesterday. The Clocktower unashamedly offers an upmarket night out in an upmarket setting with upmarket prices and to its credit pulls it off as well as any Yorkshire grand hotel with similar aspirations.
Even better, it does it without an arrogant self-regard. Better still, I could believe that it genuinely cares about what goes on its plates.
• Clocktower Restaurant, Rudding Park Hotel, Follifoot, Harrogate HG3 1JH. 01423 871350, www.ruddingpark.co.uk. Price: £50 per person plus coffee, wine and service