This is my first visit to the Alice Hawthorn at Nun Monkton for a couple of years - not entirely my choice in the main.
Since the reopening of hospitality this year, I have struggled to get a table here at a time that worked for me as they are (thankfully) busy. But, finally, we made it and once again, I am blown away by both the village and the inn, nestling in its quiet, rural idyll between the busy conurbations of York and Harrogate.There have been significant changes at the Alice since I was last here, not least at the back of the inn where a swathe of the car park is now a striking super-modern extension housing new rooms - we cheekily have a peep through the windows, and they are impressive.
In addition, there’s now a large beer garden and a new glass walkway that links the enchanting barn used for private dining and events to the main building. The merging of this level of modernism with the charm and heritage of a centuries-old, thoroughly English inn should not work, you would think. But absolutely, it does.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so, with it having just won The Sunday Times Best Places to Stay in the North award.
I have raved many times down the years about partners at the Alice, John and Clare Topham, even suggesting they are hospitality royalty here in Yorkshire because together they are consummate operators to which the popularity of the Alice bears testament. I should, however, not forget their lovely manager in the mix.
Enzo Scibilia has been with them forever, including back when they had the General Tarleton. It is Enzo who comes over to see us at the table, and it is just lovely to see him after so long; the enthusiasm and warmth he exudes, not just to me but everyone, is also one of the reasons this place is so loved.
Another reason has to be John’s food. Through his cooking, he shares a wonderful combination of imagination and deliciousness, underpinned by serious classicism. He sources impeccable ingredients and lets them shine on the plates without the need to gussy them up behind loads of fuss and nonsense.
This approach was unmistakable in both my starter of crispy chilli salt squid with an Asian salad which was simply the loveliest array of flavours and textures on a plate I had eaten for a long time, as was my main of Confit Creedy Carver Duck.
I forgive John that this duck is not from Yorkshire; instead, it is from the West Country and a farm renowned for its free-roaming, high welfare birds and sustainable farming methods, which I love.
In John’s hands, this dish is just excellent, perfectly cooked and served with once-again-trendy Peas a la Francaise – a dish my mum used to make though she called them Posh Peas – there’s a maple syrup sauce bang on just on the right side of sweetness, and fat chips too.
Rich, fatty slices of Iberico pork come chargrilled with a classic Dauphinoise, beetroot confit, Romanesco, and a tender poached Forelle pear, pleasingly showing the same restraint on the plate as my food and made for a very happy diner across the table.
And what a happy face I saw when they placed an exquisitely presented pudding of a peach melba Pavlova with raspberries, strawberries, and vanilla ice cream in front of him. He was less happy when I helped myself to some of it, though; it was so good.
If there was a niggle anywhere in this fabulous dinner, it was an unforgettable starter of Popcorn shrimp which was a little pale in colour and slightly soft batter. Still, I am being rather picky.
We had superb food, great wine, the staff were lovely and all in a gorgeous, relaxing atmosphere.
Late last year, when restaurant reviews were not happening here in the magazine, there was a series of chef profiles, and I interviewed John for the page. One question was who you would like to share dinner with.
Here is his response. “I would like to include the late Denis Watkins, my partner at The Angel in Hetton: we just had the best time working together. Our time at The Angel feels like the same journey I’m on now at The Alice Hawthorn, and I hope to make another Yorkshire institution here in Nun Monkton.”
You have John.
The Alice Hawthorn, The Green, Nun Monkton, York YO26 8EW Tel: 01423 330 303
Wed: 6 - 8.30 pm, Closed for lunch. Thurs, Fri, Sat: 12 - 2.15 pm
6 - 8.30pm, Sun: 12 - 2.30pm. Closed from 6pm
Dinner for Two with wine: £101