Restaurants: Black Swan’s winning way

Change of direction: Can a restaurant which is an art gallery by day really work? Elaine Lemm visits the Black Swan at Helmsley.

Main courses at the Black Swan Hotel at Helmsley.
Main courses at the Black Swan Hotel at Helmsley.

One of the storms that will forever be synonymous with the winter of 2014 was raging as we arrived in Helmsley. The market place car park was all but empty. There was not a soul to be seen. Even the brief dash to cross the road into the Black Swan Hotel left us battered and wet.

Had I not a review to do, there is no way I would have been out on a night like this. Surprisingly, though I expected the hotel to be empty, there was a lovely buzz inside. The cosiness of the place wrapped itself around us like a warm, woolly scarf and once seated by the fire, we could not have been more content.

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It is five years since I was here. Back then, the once famous hotel had recently been rescued from the doldrums. The faded elegance replaced with a smart – yet still cosy – country house hotel and an elegant tearoom and bright, cutting-edge restaurant added.

Main courses at the Black Swan Hotel at Helmsley.

For reasons unknown to me, there has been more change. The snuggly hotel looks much the same, but the restaurant has both a new name – The Gallery – and a change of direction. The restaurant is now home to, purportedly, the most important commercial collection of art in the North. So by day is an art gallery, at night a restaurant.

This juxtaposition did not work for me.

Several times through dinner, I commented that the room felt odd, and strangely unsettled. Only later did I learn the room had another life. This discovery answered my other concerns about the lack of flowers, plants and the appalling lighting. Unsurprisingly, in a room lit for paintings not diners, it was hard to see what we were eating. There ends my gripe with this latest incarnation of the Black Swan as the food and service is pretty spot on.

At the food helm is Australian-born chef Paul Peters. He offers four menu choices: The Gallery 10-course taster; six-course taster; daily dinner and a market menu. These four descend in price from a massive £65 per person down to £22 for two courses. At the Gallery, it is refreshing to see a neat balance between the fad for the ego-on-a-plate taster and more approachable menus.

A Tuesday night with the storm worsening outside was no time to be lingering, so we opted for the regular dinner menu.

Fresh tuna came seared with pickled Shimeji mushrooms, Bok Choy and a smattering of other oriental-style trimmings. Two styles of duck liver are treated to the same style of a plate dressed with smears, blobs, jellies and crumbs of complementary tastes and textures. A pepper crisp also added a snap and bite.

Discovering each component on the plate was frustratingly awkward; we may as have well been blindfolded thanks to the previously mentioned lack of lighting. Still, light is not needed for taste, and both dishes were exceptional.

Through the intricate menus, it is evident the chef has a passion for fresh, seasonal food; all the menus groan with them. It was refreshing to see the underrated and rarely seen squab on offer. Here, it comes as a tender oven roasted breast and a delicate confit of leg. Served alongside was a fat meaty Boudin blanc, another taste of duck liver and a meltingly soft, fondant potato. The cleverness of this dish was not just the exemplary cooking but its fit to the season.

Keeping very much with the seasons, a sole with lobster dish was another clever working on, and off, the plate. The oven-roasted fish and lobster were melded into one neat slab, with a saffron tea broth poured over from a delightful tiny teapot. What a surprising and witty combination.

Puddings did not disappoint, though perhaps a more hearty offering would have been welcome. A taste of banana brought roasted, mousse, more blobs, this time of salted caramel. Szechuan pepper in the ice cream added an unusual flavour, and this jury is out on whether it worked; it wasn’t unpleasant, just… odd.

If there had to be one dish, which failed, it was the fruit cake and cheese. Our waiter told us to expect a deconstruction. It was not. To deconstruct a dish is to present extracts of individual elements – be it a flavour, a texture, and ingredient. What came? An underwhelming crumbled cake and cheese flavoured ice-cream.

That aside, in context as a dinner menu, the whole worked really well. I regret not having had the time to journey through the full taster menu. I suspect if I had, then the entire range of chef’s talents would be revealed.

Throughout dinner, service was excellent, a little formal, the overall tone a little too hushed for me but hey-ho; it was, nevertheless, precise and especially friendly. We left wine choices to the sommelier given the complexity of the food; he did not disappoint.

I am still dithering over the dining room when deciding if I would go back. I would go in the wink of an eye for the food and service, but the room needs work. The paintings are glorious and lovely to look at, but I would rather be able to see my food.

The Black Swan Hotel, Market Place, Helmsley, YO62 5BJ. 01439 770466, Food is served in the Gallery, 7–9.30pm daily. Cost a whisper over £100 for three-course dinner menu and a couple of glasses of wine each.