They can be hard to find, but after a long search Jill Turton finally stumbles on a neighbourhood restaurant to shout about.
In the 29 years that he edited this column, Robert Cockroft’s reviews were honest, funny, provocative and pitch perfect, but even he got tired of writing about the second rate: “Experiences of appalling and exceptional restaurants write themselves, mediocrity is harder to relate.” Too true. I’ve eaten in too many mediocre restaurants of late and the heart sinks at the prospect of doing my best to find kind words for somewhere that doesn’t really deserve it.
What a thrill then to hit on somewhere to genuinely enthuse about, a spirited, individual and distinctive neighbourhood restaurant that understands food, knows what goes with what and creates a menu that makes you want to eat the lot.
The restaurant in question is on Micklegate in York, a street currently blossoming with shops, bars, two hot restaurants in Skosh and Rattle Owl and now a third, Partisan.
It’s been open for a year but I’ve passed it by on the grounds that it was principally a daytime cafe and probably wouldn’t stand up to a full review. How wrong. Not only do they now open three evenings a week, Thursday to Saturday, but their daytime menu looks well worth a punt, too.
It’s both a restaurant and a shop. Everything – paintings, mirrors, furniture – is for sale thanks to their links with antique furniture company the French House. Looking for a vintage anglepoise lamp? It’s on a side cupboard. Need a tubular cafe chair? You’re sitting on it. You don’t have to go for all the art or the limed oak, but overall I love the look and the feel of the place.
The menu too really sings: pheasant with pancetta, sweet potato bubble and squeak, prune ketchup; beetroot and pomegranate mousse; salt baked beetroot with chestnut bulgar wheat risotto; ceviche; mallard; mackerel; meatballs. It will probably have changed completely by the time you read this but you get the drift.
Florencia Clifford and Hugo Hildyard, she from Argentina, he from York, are the creators of this gem. They farm at Scrayingham by the Derwent and beside their own vegetable and herb garden Florencia says she’s inspired by stuff like plantains, Jerusalem artichokes and what she picks up in foodie Malton.
Shopping might be in Malton, but the meal is global. Florencia takes her influences from Argentina and her Scottish, Italian and French heritage, and from New York where she was inspired by the 90s food revolution and the rise of artisan bakeries and farmers’ markets. With head chef James Gilroy, they make their own curds, pickles and kimchi. Florencia has cooked for a Buddhist retreat, practising what she calls “Zen Cooking – the meditative practice of cooking for others with attention, compassion and awareness”.
If the food on our plate is Zen, then I’m a convert. We begin with cauliflower bhaji on a soft beetroot red taco topped with charred cucumber and pico de gallo – a Mexican salad of tomato, onion, coriander, chilli, lime juice and, to bring it all together, a sweet potato hummus. So far from an intercontinental car crash, it’s an inspired melange of texture and flavour.
The ceviche of sea bream stays firmly in Peru and represents that country’s distinctive way with raw fish using lemon ojo de tigre – tiger milk – to “cook” the raw fish and deliver a deliciously straight-from the-sea tingle that works perfectly with diced avocado, tomatoes, red chilli and miniature leaves.
The dish of the day though and maybe of the year (yes, I know it’s only February) is the mallard breast. There’s so much going on – in a good way – that it’s hard to work it all out. The generous slices of wild duck have been cooked rare and are topped with tostones – fried plantain slices. There are crumbs of black pudding dotted around and a dark sour/sweet sauce that I guess is Yorkshire rhubarb and blueberry and popping up among all the deliciousness is the salty crunch of duck crackling.
The side dishes are as inventive as the mains: Hispi cabbage with chilli butter and yoghurt; roast carrots with dill, yogurt and za’atar; spiced cauliflower with tahini and mint. But it was a light, crisp refreshing salad of raw Jerusalem artichoke, thinly sliced Manchego, slices of blood orange and a sprinkle of broken pistachios that won me over. It was simple, fresh and lovely.
At dessert, I fancied the marmalade baked fruit with raspberry and sorrel sorbet but I was far too stuffed so I took home a slice of apricot frangipane tart and as a late-night snack, its crisp pastry and apricot/almond filling was as irresistible as everything else.
Drinks were excellent value, especially a robust Merlot at £5 a glass, and I will be back to sample the Seedlip non-alcoholic spirit and tonic. I’ll also be back in the daytime too to try their aubergine parmigiana, the butternut squash and prune tagine and Bibimbap, the Korean classic of spicy rice, beef, vegetables, mushrooms and topped with egg, sesame and kimchi.
I hear about a PhD student who comes in every day without fail for his Bibimbap. Can’t survive without it, apparently. I can see how Partisan could get addictive. Oh, and it’s been a pleasure to tell you about it.
Partisan, 112 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX. 01904 629866, partisanuk.com. Open: Monday to Sunday, 9am-5pm, and Thursday to Saturday, 6-10pm. Price: Three-course dinner for two, inc. bottle of wine and service, £95.