RESTAURANT REVIEW Robert Cockroft at Vennell's, Masham.
How good is this recent arrival in Masham, successor to
Charles Flood's long-established Floodlite restaurant? As far
as the cooking goes, seriously good.
A glance at the plate suggests that will be the case and the impression is supported by a glance through the glazed kitchen door.
A chef, thirties maybe, dressed in pristine whites and working alone, is placing butternut squash into a blender. The worktop is tidy, everything looks organised.
It's Saturday lunchtime and just two tables of two are occupied in the 24-cover dining room. Although the kitchen is visible by those who trouble to peep in en route to the world-class loos, the chef could have worn pyjamas and a top hat and few would have registered it. It mattered that he didn't.
The hood does not make the monk, but if a chef is prepared to take trouble over the small things on the quietest service of the week, it's a reasonable guess that he'll take pains with the large things, too.
And so it proves. Lunch – 19.95 for three courses and 16.95 for two – brings three choices at each stage. It's not the cheapest in an area well provided with tourist trade cafs, tea shops and food pubs, yet it flies higher than most of the local competition.
It is not simply the quality of the ingredients or the skill in deploying them but the imaginative resource that informs the whole process. Plenty of places in the Dales offer starters featuring smoked salmon; how many trouble to smoke the salmon themselves?
How many would fashion a small tartare of it with beetroot and arrange it on the plate next to a raisin and caper comp'te to set off the lightly smoked slices and a lovely little slab of the sweet-cured fish?
This is modern English cooking of a high order and it is small surprise to learn that it is the work of an experienced chef. Jon Vennell ran the kitchen for 10 years at Haley's Hotel restaurant in Leeds and spent some of his early years training in Switzerland.
When Charles Flood decided to opt for a new career in gardening after nearly 20 years at the roadside restaurant, Vennell bought it, revised the traditional, self-effacing interior and opened for the late summer trade.
The dining room is now lighter and simpler but hardly a decorative statement. If the meek ever inherit the earth – and what a sparkling party that will be – this will be their dining room of choice.
Masham is appreciated for its architectural restraint and the Vennells seem to have taken that
as their styling cue, perhaps reasoning that passing sheep
farmers are not likely to be
impressed by acres of chrome,
leather and granite.
Even so, it was a questionable decision to frost the large front windows of the listed building for three-quarters of their height. No
one wishes to eat for the entertainment of passers-by, but
the opaque coating sharpens the sense of insularity.
Obscuring half of the window would have been enough and the result would have provided a better view of the handsome buildings by the market square.
The platescape, however, provides bright compensation at every
stage; the clean, fresh winter-warming butternut squash soup is
a vibrant orange to match its welcome vibrant seasoning.
The pallor of a main course of belly pork confit is offset by a hillock of sweetcorn cous-cous (sounds odd, tastes terrific) which itself is surrounded by diced caramelised apple and small dark brooding dabs of braised tongue.
This is a lovely dish, and would be more lovely still with an artfully placed piece of crackling. The pork
is of melting, spoon-cut-able texture and clearly it had itself feasted
well locally before it joined us on
the plate. Rib-eye steak with root vegetables, creamed potatoes and haggis is among the trio of mains (the neighbouring butcher, from whom we bought some excellent local lamb, is a haggis-monger) and monkfish figures in the third choice.
The fish has been carefully trimmed and it is served without undue fuss: grilled with the pan juices. A well-bred risotto is its companion and the whole composition shouts class.
Puddings maintain the brio with a light, silken vanilla and Grand Marnier panna cotta, and a warm, chocolate-oozing pudding of alpha quality that arrives with a white chocolate sorbet that has rather less to say. The other choice is a selection of five Yorkshire cheeses with chutney, biscuits and bread.
The dinner menu (two courses for 19) looks useful, too, and the resourceful wine list balances the
old and the New World with
shrewd judgment. Service is amiable and discreet.
Charles Flood brought illumination to food in Masham; John Vennell has turned up the power.
Vennell's Restaurant, 7 Silver Street, Masham, North Yorkshire, HG4 4DX. 01765 689000. Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday, 7pm-9.30pm; lunch: Friday to Sunday, noon-2pm. Parking in the market square.