In 2016 the insurance giant Aviva, announced it had sold its York office block, Yorkshire House, on the corner of Rougier Street and Station Rise, to the Malmaison hotel chain. Built in the early ’60s during architecture’s Brutalist era, Yorkshire House is typical of the genre with its straight lines, small windows and monolithic appearance. It’s no beauty, but Malmaison has form in taking on difficult buildings – a Greek Orthodox church in Glasgow, a former prison in Oxford. It took it two years for work to begin here, only for it to be hit first by the pandemic and then by the contractors going bust.
New contractors were found and in June this year the much talked-about hotel opened its doors. The buzz was less about Malmaison’s 150 bedrooms, its gym, spa and work pods, not even the Chez Mal brasserie – it’s a chain after all. The talk has all been about Sora, the wrap-around sky bar created on top of the building that promises cocktails, Asian tapas and unrivalled views across the city.
It turns out, I am not the only person intrigued to see the city from on high. It has taken me three months to score a table but here we are gliding up in the dedicated golden lift to the seventh floor.
You can eat inside, but the outdoor terrace is what we are here for. The design is restrained and elegant. The chequerboard grey and white flagstones are echoed in the grey and white striped seat cushions. There are oak banquettes and an oak planter containing a very large olive tree, giving it a Mediterranean feel, while the space heaters reminds us this is chilly old Yorkshire.
Naturally the views are knock-out. The city fathers have long protected the York skyline from high-rise buildings, better to preserve the views of the Minster. It’s quite a thrill therefore to get such a wonderful panorama of the city from this high up. The Railway Museum, the Holgate Windmill, the green lung of Museum Gardens and centre stage, the gleaming Minster with the chaotic roofscape of reds and greys beneath. The view extends beyond, to a great sweep of Yorkshire and through the haze, we can just make out the White Horse of Kilburn 25 miles away.
Having drunk in the view, what of the food? The pan-Asian menu offers a selection of small plates – sushi and sashimi, hot and cold dishes, just four of them vegetarian, and all at around £8 each. It’s a smartly constructed menu for the relaxed, casual eating and drinking vibe.
The most significant offer is a mixed plate of sushi and sashimi made up of tuna, salmon, tiger prawn, California rolls and maki rolls – 25 pieces in all for £35. A smaller option of six nigiri at £8 allows us to range further across the menu. From the cold dishes comes sesame seared tuna with avocado, wasabi and Harenga (a smoked herring caviar) served in a sweet shoyu sauce. From the grill, tender pieces of glazed beef short rib have been gently flavoured with chilli and star anise. Miso- glazed black cod is our most expensive dish at £13 and is the most disappointing, the fish is soft and has minimum glaze. Happily, KFC brings things back in line. Not that KFC, Korean fried cauliflower: florets fried with that classic trio of honey, shoyu and ginger. More bite to the cauliflower would have lifted it from a good dish to a terrific one, but it’s the sticky, sweet, savoury and sour combo that really makes it sing.
With coffee and service, the bill for two comes to £68, fair value given the setting and the view, though get stuck into the cocktails and the bill could look very different. We stick with a refreshing cherry blossom negroni and a Toki mule comprising Japanese whisky, crème de cassis and ginger ale. It is sweeter than I’d like but hey, for no more than a tenner you are buying the best view in York.
Bravo Malmaison for having the foresight to recognise this hulk of a building was worth saving, for understanding that these brutes are part of our architectural heritage, a snapshot in time and for ploughing on through five difficult years. The company’s own strapline could not have put it better: “A Beast Made Beautiful”.
Sora Bar, Malmaison Hotel, 2 Rougier Street, York. Open: Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, noon to midnight, Friday and Saturday, noon to 2am. Tel. 0330 016 0380, www.malmaison.com/locations/york/sora/. Price: approximately £90 for two, including two cocktails and service.