We were making use of a friend’s rented and somewhat dilapidated cottage in a secret valley, down a dirt track in the hamlet of Scawton, for a sybaritic weekend of eating, drinking and dossing in the overgrown garden. It was like Withnail and I, but with good food.
We would always start the weekend at the Hare Inn, an old boozer on the main road, and it was downhill from there. I’m older and wiser now and so is the Hare Inn. The shabby old pub of memory is now a gloriously upgraded restaurant with rooms, serving a nine-course tasting menu at £85, with optional wine matching at £60 per person, and two (soon to be four) glamorous bedrooms.
Behind the upgrade is one determined couple. Paul and Liz Jackson came from the Crown Inn at Great Ouseburn some nine years ago and every spare minute when they are not cooking and serving dinner, they are painting and hammering and fitting out the place to create what is now a beautiful, welcoming inn.
Concrete has been hacked off the exterior to expose the lovely mellow stone, with a broad sweep of steps, flanked by pot plants, welcoming you to this historic inn. They are maintaining the Covid rules, with well-spaced tables, cutlery in your own personal wooden box and I’ve never before been offered my own personal toilet with my name on the door.
So, strap in for two hours or more of precise and expertly executed dishes. Three snacks major on eel in a pastry cigar, salmon mousse in a cone, and some (very salty) Dexter beef.
Stone bass follows, with tender razor clams in a cream and pistachio sauce and a foam made from mussel liquor.
If “tomato water” doesn’t sound much cop, believe me it is superb. A light but intensely flavoured tomato broth, bathing sweet, roasted cherry tomatoes with the contrasting hit of Yellison goat’s cheese. The dish is finished with nasturtium leaves and crisped buckwheat.
Then it’s monkfish with kombu seaweed in a rich dashi broth given a splash of soy with sweet notes coming from finely diced apple. Never afraid of a bit of theatre, Paul’s mackerel dish comes in a black lidded pot. We lift the lid to release a trail of smokey vapours taking smoked mackerel to a new level, fragrant with lemon verbena and a kick of Gentleman’s Relish.
The duck breast comes juicy and pink alongside tender duck leg confit, cooked low and slow, flavoured with hoisin and then cucumber slices to cut through the sweetness.
Desserts – just the three – begin with “Milk and Honey”, which Liz describes as a palate cleanser. Honeycomb for crunch, fudgy pearls of mascarpone hidden beneath in a mass of honey-flavoured bubbles.
The chocolate course is a petit chocolate button, as shiny as ebony and topped with ice cream, flavoured with hazelnuts from the surrounding woods. It amounts to no more than a couple of mouthfuls, but it’s two of the most insanely chocolatey mouthfuls I’ve ever tasted offset by that slick of nutty ice cream.
To finish this thoughtful, complex, labour-intensive dinner is a delicate collation of sweet raspberries from their garden, a sharp ewe’s milk ice cream, raspberry sorbet, raspberry gel, brought together with a granita of lemon geranium leaves. A beautifully judged dessert, light, yet perfumed with summer.
It was a superb dinner, showcasing the very best of the Jacksons’ skills. Paul is a talented chef who surprisingly began his career in chain restaurants – the rest he taught himself, along with joinery, painting and plastering to create the four splendid bedrooms. Liz, trained in hospitality, is informed, knowledgeable and equally committed to their joint enterprise.
I don’t much care for tasting menus – too many petit portions, too many courses that can turn a delightful meal into a slog, but I understand that chefs and customers like them. It would be churlish of me to take issue here after 15 months of lockdown and nine years of hard graft.
Paul takes the best ingredients and creates some truly outstanding dishes. The welcome and service is spot on and who wouldn’t want to fall into bed after dinner in one of their gorgeous bedrooms? So, I congratulate this enterprising, single-minded, dogged, indomitable couple for turning a timeworn inn into a truly remarkable destination.
The Hare Inn, Scawton, Helmsley YO7 2HG, tel 01845 597769, [email protected], www.thehare-inn.com. Open, Thursday-Saturday, 6-7.30pm, nine- course set menu, £85pp, wine matching, £60pp.