Restaurant review: Alice has grown up

Rib eye steak, beef dripping chips and onion rings
Rib eye steak, beef dripping chips and onion rings
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The first year was erratic, but 12 months after the Alice Hawthorn reopened, Jill Turton finds a country pub which finally knows where its going. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

Yes, faithful reader, we’ve been here before. It is just a year since this column reviewed the Alice Hawthorn and it was one of those reviews that gave a well-intentioned but struggling kitchen the benefit of considerable doubt.

So, a quick recap. The setting is perfect. Nun Monkton is a quintessential Golden Triangle village between York and Harrogate: maypole, duck pond, sprawling village green, rustic brick cottages, roses and hollyhocks. And two young professional couples, who 18 months ago took on the ailing village pub with a view to not only keeping it open but raising its standards.

Up to a point they did. The fresh new decor, slate floor, scrubbed wooden tables, distressed leather armchairs and pots of Farrow & Ball blue brightened and modernised the place. But it wasn’t long before the cracks began to show. Three chefs in the preceding three months was worrying, service was haphazard and the promise of an “army of foragers” scouring the local hedgerows for wild foods was optimistic to implausible. I didn’t hurry back.

Then I heard that the owners had sold to a chef who knew what he was doing and it looks like the Alice Hawthorn is back on a much sounder track.

Josh Overington is the chef/patron of Cochon Aveugle, the little French bistro in York’s international restaurant quarter on Walmgate and where, over the last nine months he has created a cracking six- course, £35 no-choice set menu with the likes of leeks baked in hay, slow-cooked pork with boudin noir and a dessert of burnt cream. He’s got real pedigree having cooked at Yorkshire’s Pipe and Glass and Le Langhe in a previous life, and before that for Tom Kerridge at the Hand and Flowers and the Roux’s Waterside Inn at Bray.

Since he can’t be in two places at once, Overington is not cooking at The Alice. Instead he has two chefs behind the stove: Michael Taylor (late of the Yorke Arms and Martin Wishart’s) and Matthew Deeley (Blind Swine and the Yorke Arms)and between them they have created a thoroughly English, seasonal blackboard menu, changing some dishes every day – “to keep the locals interested” says our waiter – and Overington pops over every night after service at Cochon, to check up on young Alice.

The six starters and six mains don’t have the elegance, the complexity or the sophistication of Cochon, and nor should they; this is gutsy, autumnal pub food with locality and seasonality at its core: fish pie with brown shrimps, monkfish tail and purple sprouting broccoli. Vegetarians, as ever, have to make do with risotto. A stuck record of mine, I confess, but however good the butternut squash with walnut pesto is, veggies are simply fed up with risotto.

Soused mackerel comes in a kilner jar, with its pickling juices and is spot on served with a creamy/mayonnaisey salad of artichoke and smoked salmon, which has bite and flavour. Excellent, too, is the rib eye steak that comes with proper onion rings, a miniature pan of proper chips, a miniature pan of salad – that’s enough miniature pans, chef – and a jug of pepper sauce. It’s all good. A juicy rare steak, good potatoey chips and crisp onion rings tot up to a fair value plateful for £18.50. I could point to inferior steaks elsewhere in Yorkshire at nearly double that price.

There’s more than a hint of nose to tail on the menu with the likes of bone marrow, “olde English faggots” and calves liver and mash with an echo of Cochon Aveugle in the tartiflette with French sausage.

The bone marrow is a bit too carnivorous for my girly taste (but respect for putting something quite so edgy on the menu). My partner has no such hang-ups and once he mastered the trick of dosing the wobbly, pink marrow with plenty of salt and pepper, spooned it onto toast and added a few sprigs of the parsley and shallot salad, he is a convert.

Faggots are no less carnivorous being made with the offally bits of pig and other unmentionables, but minced and mixed with onions and flavoured with bay and maybe sage and allspice (who knows) and formed into meatballs, the dish has travelled a long way from snout and trotter. Indeed the soft little meatballs are meaty, soft and tender on their bed of super-smooth mash and surrounded by peas and gravy and now and again, a lucky piece of smoked bacon.

Desserts follow the old English nursery theme with bread and butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding, treacle sponge, Bakewell tart, lemon tart and pavlova. We share a pavlova which in contrast to the earlier stout courses of meat and veg is particularly dainty. Meringues – two perky little pink breasts – are served with a full and deliciously flavoured almond cream and some lightly poached plums and confirm all the good impressions.

A straightforward wine list covers all bases; the pint of Landlord is in good nick; the service, so bumbling a year ago, is relentlessly “no problem” for our Tiggerish waiter; and the dining room with its low whitewashed beams, lanterns, candles and log fire is welcoming in the best English pub tradition. They plan a major refurbishment in January to warm up the rather sparse back bar and when that’s done, lovely Nun Monkton should have a matching adornment in its local pub.

• The Alice Hawthorn, The Green, Nun Monkton, York YO26 8EW. 01423 330303, Open: Tuesday, 6pm-9pm; Wednesday to Saturday, 11.30am-2.30pm & 6pm-9pm; Sunday, 12-4pm. Price: Approx. £30 plus coffee, wine and service.