We knew we were in for an extraordinary ride from the first cocktail.
My nephew James, ordered “A Fresco of Caroline”, a mix of Hennessy, Suze, passion fruit, lemon and soda, subtitled “A Widow’s Kiss”. We were certainly in the right place to spot a rich widow; the sunny terrace of the new £70m… gulp… restoration of Grantley Hall, the handsome Palladian mansion near Ripon, once West Riding County Council’s Further Education Centre and now a 47-bedroom hotel where the cheapest room will set you back £350 a night and the Presidential Suite a whopping £5,000.
It’s worth a visit just to see what £70m buys you. I can report on manicured acres, sculpture, statuary, splashing fountains, the oak-panelled Norton Bar and a spa to outdo all other spas with altitude training, an underwater treadmill and a snow room on the basis that “snow makes you happy”.
You can have dinner in one of three restaurants – the pan-Asian Eighty Eight, the casual Fletchers and Shaun Rankin at Grantley Hall with a 10-course, 90 quid set menu and £65 wine pairing served in a sumptuous dining room of Wedgwood blue with velvet chairs so heavy the waiting staff have all on to slide them in as we sit. It’s that sort of place.
But first that cocktail. The waiter sets down a blue cardboard box, on which he places a quill pen in an ornate silver holder, a little pot of ink and then the foaming drink itself. “It’s just a bit of theatre,” he explains, in case we might have thought of quaffing the ink.
There’s plenty of theatre at Grantley Hall. It’s the kind of place where they regularly top up your wine, replenish the water, sweep away invisible crumbs, replace a dropped napkin and issue “dessert napkins” – a new one on me. It’s the kind of place where servers (shirt sleeves, black aprons) carry trays from the kitchen so that two seniors (white shirts, dark suits) can place them, in unison, before you. This finely choreographed dance is performed across a full dining room of the North Yorkshire entitled.
Its creator is Shaun Rankin, a top chef you might have seen on daytime telly. He won a Michelin star for Ormer in Jersey, is executive chef of Ormer at Flemings Hotel in Mayfair and now this. It was quite a coup when late last year Valeria Sykes, the money and brains behind this audacious enterprise, procured Rankin to head up the flagship restaurant.
It’s a homecoming for Rankin who was born in County Durham and grew up in Yorkshire. His “Taste of Home” menu recalls his memories of Yorkshire: bread and dripping, fried scampi, tomato sandwiches. If it all sounds a bit “ee bah gum”, fear not – this is a very classy reinvention of his childhood favourites.
It begins with some tiny but exquisite snacks followed by a pot of raw vegetables in “edible soil”. I thought chefs were over edible soil, I certainly was until this, but his mix of broccoli and mushrooms is terrific, with carrot, radish, baby leeks and salad leaves “planted” in the soil had two of us fighting over it like hungry rabbits. It’s the best soil I’ve eaten in ages.
Then it was bread and dripping. The bread roll was oven crisp with a wonderful malty crust crackling under every bite and served with butter and smoked bone marrow to smear generously all over. If that wasn’t comfort food enough, out comes a steaming cup of Bovril. Of course it isn’t Bovril at all, but a beautiful clear, amber broth, meaty yet delicate. They call it beef tea; we call it sensational.
Remember when fried scampi was the height of sophistication? Rankin takes the idea and makes it his own with a plump langoustine tail wrapped in a batter made up of tiny, flakes; crisp, hot and crackling from the pan, then he finishes the plate with seaweed and a savoury dashi jam. Scampi in a basket was never this good.
Rankin’s “greenhouse tomato” is in remembrance of his grandad’s home-grown tomatoes picked from the vine and eaten with a splash of malt vinegar. He gives us an exquisite tomato, filled with goat’s cheese that sits glossily like a piece of ceramic art. Spoiler alert – it isn’t really a tomato at all but a cheffy way with goat’s cheese and tomato liquor that ends up looking like and tasting like the best tomato you’ve ever eaten. He may be reinventing the wheel, (I remember a MasterChef contestant mashing garden peas then reforming them into spheres so they looked like… well peas). If this is what it takes to make a tomato taste like a tomato, I’m up for it – even the calyx is given the treatment to make it sweetly and crunchily edible.
A lamb cutlet served simply with the smoothest, creamiest Jerusalem artichoke puree leads us into a “palate cleanser” involving rhubarb followed by a gooseberry and elderflower parfait and finally a sensational woodruff ice cream with sorrel sponge, hazelnuts and a raspberry sauce. It’s the finale to one of the best meals I’ve had all year and for James the best he’s ever had.
It’s a tough gig creating a menu that is expected to top everything anywhere in the region. I had feared that Rankin would give us the familiar fine dining trope of large plates and small food, tweezered leaves, smears and blobs, but not a bit of it. He’s given us a joyous menu, with sublime food that is both generous and fun. Save up, pawn the kids, but go because Rankin has nailed it for Grantley.
Shaun Rankin at Grantley Hall, Grantley Hall, Ripon HG4 3ET; 01765 620070; www.grantleyhall.co.uk; email firstname.lastname@example.org; open: Tuesday-Friday, 6-9.30pm, Saturday, 12-1.30pm and 6.30-9.30pm; dinner for two with wine pairing and service, £341.