Review: Bantam, in Helmsley

In July when we’d been released from lockdown, I travelled with friends to the East Neuk of Fife, a coastline dotted with pretty harbours and cute villages, where we bought lobster from a shack at Crail harbour and took home cakes and loaves from an artisan baker in North Berwick.

But the highlight of our trip was lunch outdoors in the sunny garden of the Kinneuchar Inn in the village of Kilconquhar, near Leven. It was one of those days when everything came right; the weather, the pub, the garden and the novelty of sitting round a table with friends enjoying good food and wine once more. Oh, the joy.

Fast forward three months and a message drops into my in-box from a proud dad who had tracked me down to tell me that his son Sam Varley had recently opened a restaurant in Helmsley.

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He attached a fulsome CV informing me that Sam was not only national schoolboy boxing champion and studied sociology at university, but nurtured a love of cooking and picked up cheffing in Melbourne, Australia, at Duck Soup in Soho, Naughty Piglets in Brixton and the aforementioned Kinneuchar Inn. I reckoned he must be doing something good in Helmsley, and so it proved.

Pumpkin ravioli, brown butter, sage & chestnut. (James Hardisty).

Bantam opened in July in what was once Gepetto’s pizza restaurant. With a fresh coat of white paint and the addition of some mismatched tables and chairs and nice window graphics, it became Bantam and if the interior lacks a great deal of character, the menu makes up for it. Cheese gougères, buttermilk fried chicken, pumpkin ravioli, Jerusalem artichoke with cured egg yolk and autumn truffle, we could have eaten the lot. Oh hang on, we did, and more, all meticulously prepared and fabulous.

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You’ll have guessed it’s a small plate sort of place. Choose three or four dishes to share, they’ll come out as they’re ready, you know the score. They are actually more medium than small, starting at £4.50 for cheese gougères. The rest, including flatbreads (pizza by any other name), are around £12, with a few larger dishes at £25 and rising. These include lamb chops, roast monkfish and specials of turbot and T-bone steak and chips.

My friend Liz and I pounce on the gougères but they are not the little choux buns we were expecting, but choux pastry and Dale End cheddar rolled into mini cigars and deep fried. It comes as a sort of cheesy croquette and is served straight from the fryer. It’s as hot as molten lava.

Bantam has been earning rave reviews since opening in the summer. (James Hardisty).

The chicken liver parfait is very good but again, not what we expected. Less a firm terrine, than a sauce. It’s silky, rich, earthy, scattered with deep purple, pickled elderberries to cut through the richness. We scoop rather than spread it on toasted brioche.

Chicory leaves are a refresher after the parfait. Loaded with broken walnuts, blue cheese and poached pear, it’s a classic combination that brings together bitter chicory, sweet pear, umami cheese and the crunch of walnuts.

I can never resist anything with buttermilk in the title. It sounds like something rich and nourishing when it’s more of a thin yoghurt. It does a good job of marinating chicken thighs that Varley deep fries and again sends out piping hot with lime and chilli mayo.

Another must-have is pumpkin ravioli. What could be more autumnal than parcels of pasta filled with velvety, orange pumpkin, then finished with nutty brown butter, sage leaves and chestnuts?

The dish of the day though, we both agree, is the Jerusalem artichoke. That’s roast artichoke coated in a cream sauce made with artichoke and onion. It puddles around a cured egg yolk for extra richness, then the whole dish is given extra oomph with a grating of autumn truffle and artichoke crisps. It’s as comforting as it is sublime.

Dessert? We couldn’t possibly. We’re stuffed. Well, go on then, just one scoop of marmalade ice cream and two spoons, served at just the right stage of melt with a sablé biscuit.

Apart from Mannion & Co which is daytime only, I’m hard pressed to think of a restaurant in Helmsley that comes close to Bantam.

Maybe others have been scared off by the competition from the much-garlanded Star Inn and Pheasant Inn round the corner in Harome.

Bravo then to Sam Varley and sous chef Shane Leadley (late of London’s much- admired Noble Rot), to front of house Jo Varley, wife of proud dad Peter Varley, for taking on the opposition at their own game. This smart little family enterprise is at long last providing Helmsley with the restaurant it deserves.

Bantam, 8 Bridge Street, Helmsley, YO62 5BG, 01479 770479. www.bantamrestaurant.co.uk. Open: Wednesday to Saturday, 12-3pm, and Tuesday to Saturday, 5-9pm. Price: dinner for two, including bottle of wine and service, £100.