The Abbey Inn at Byland: We ate out at Tommy Banks' new pub - and it was everything we hoped for
Tommy Banks looked ashen-faced. It was March 2020 and lockdown had forced him to close his two Michelin-starred restaurants, Roots in York and the Black Swan at Oldstead, with the probability of laying off 75 members of staff.
A group of us had gathered outside Roots to order a meal in a box created by the restaurant to be finished off at home. We are all familiar with the idea now, but back then it was something new and Banks was looking nervous, as if he had no idea how this was going to pan out. Very well as it turned out. When I went back to collect my box a week later the list of orders had topped 800.
It was this new business that sustained his staff throughout lockdown and spawned a whole new enterprise. Made in Oldstead now send out 300-400 meals a week from their dedicated site at Melmerby near Ripon.
Add to those, two top-rated restaurants, the franchise for Lords and Twickenham, the Banks Brothers Wine in a Can, an apprenticeship scheme and various TV appearances and you might think that would be quite enough for one celebrity chef, but last month [June] Tommy Banks opened the Abbey Inn at Byland.
How could he resist? Just a mile from the restaurant and farm at Oldstead, this lovely old sandstone inn stands opposite English Heritage’s Byland Abbey in a wooded valley in deepest Ryedale.
It’s not just Tommy of course, this is a family business with parents Tom and Anne, brother James and best mate Matthew Lockwood, head chef at Roots, all part of the business.
Years ago, well before they had the Black Swan, they had tried to buy the Abbey Inn, but were beaten to it by English Heritage who ran it for a few years, coincidentally with a teenage Tommy Banks at the pot wash.
Now in a story of revolving doors, the Banks family are leasing it back from English Heritage to run it as ‘a proper country pub’. The interior is an uncluttered space with old beams, country furniture and rustic tables made in-house.
So how does a double Michelin starred chef, with a fancy tasting menus that peaks at £175, do a pub? Very well indeed judging by my visit, though if you are expecting pub grub at pub prices, go find a Toby Carvery.
The small bar and large informal lawned garden has a dedicated menu of snacks (no booking required) of chips and ketchup, a plate of charcuterie or more substantially a Byland burger, a mushroom burger and an upmarket ploughman’s.
The main menu they say, ‘champions classic British food, adding our own unique Oldstead style’. If you are not familiar with the Oldstead style, then you should know it’s all about fermenting and foraging, local and sustainable, working with the seasons, preserving food for leaner times. You hear it everywhere, but what Banks can do with chicory root and chicken skin takes that mantra to another level.
The menu is loaded with the stuff. Steak is served with fermented mushrooms, chicory root jam turns up on the Byland burger and chicken skin is roasted to a crisp then whizzed to a fine crumb and scattered over the silkiest chicken liver parfait, so smooth and rich, I’ve never tasted better. Douglas fir pops up in the ice cream sundae and lemon Verbena is everywhere.
Lemon Verbena is a Banks favourite. It’s a tender herb grown by the ton in dedicated polytunnels on the Oldstead farm. Don’t leave without trying their apple and lemon Verbena tonic, a refreshing soft drink with a distinctive citrussy tang.
And if all this sounds a bit abstruse, the Abbey Inn has plenty of familiar pub classics: steak, and burgers, pies and ploughman’s, beef fat chips and roast beef on Sunday and with enough fish and non-meat dishes to keep everyone happy.
If you are an omnivore, the meat is worth choosing. The farm at Oldstead Grange has been in the family for generations, in recent years it’s been arable, supplying all the fruit, veg and herbs for the restaurants, but they’ve now reintroduced animals, Dexter and Jersey cattle, Mangaliza and Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, Herdwick sheep and rescue chickens.
It’s all part of their nose to tail ethos in which they utilise the whole beast, the luxury cuts going to the restaurants, the cheaper cuts like shoulder and rump for the pub. It goes into the Byland Burger which looks the real deal, a Dexter beef patty, layered with cheese, bacon, chicory root jam and served with beef fat fries.
Dexter beef turns up again on Sunday in a textbook roast, set upon horseradish cream, with glazed carrots and some beautifully crisped up roast potatoes. Giant puffed up Yorkshire puddings are served separately and filled with tender, slow roast oxtail, there’s gravy and a dish of cauliflower cheese. At £26 it’s more than you might expect to pay for an all-you-can-eat Sunday roast in many a pub, but I challenge you to find one better.
At dessert Tommy Banks has only gone and bought a Mr Whippy machine, or more properly a soft-serve ice cream maker with none of the ersatz flavours of fond memory, but with the Banks signature of Douglas Fir and lemon Verbena. Add white chocolate for a sundae that is as good as it gets, mixing the heady scent of pine with the distinctive lemony tang of the Verbena.
All this assumes you can secure a table. Three weeks in, I could only book for a late Sunday lunch. By then they had already served 85 with a further 75 booked in for dinner. Even if that’s down to the opening buzz, I think we can assume, bar another pandemic, the Abbey Inn is here to stay.
The Abbey Inn, Byland, York YO61 4BD
Open: Mon/Fri/Sat/Sun 12pm-2pm & 5.30pm-8.30pm
Dinner for two inc. a bottle of wine and service. £140.