If the impressive wine list at Adam Humphrey’s smart new restaurant features more Italian labels than you might expect from a Yorkshireman who has lately relocated from Australia, that might be because in a former life they belonged to York’s Le Langhe which boasted one of the biggest and best collections of Italian wines in Britain: 600 plus on the list and more racked along the walls.
Le Langhe was arguably the best restaurant – and deli – in York. It operated in its own topsy-turvy fashion under the mercurial Ottavio Bocca. The stories were legendary from volcanic rows breaking out in the kitchen to chaotic service and staff that veered alarmingly between charming and charmless, that’s if there were enough staff at all.
Yet the food was so dreamily good that we kept coming back for Otto’s tagliatelle and game ragu, his ravioli of pumpkin and goat’s cheese and his soothing calves’ liver with sage. I could go on. Then last year Otto packed up and went home to Italy. This wasn’t another temper tantrum. He was gone for good.
Fast forward six months and the premises of the Old Coach House has changed out of all recognition after a total redesign by the new owners, husband and wife team Adam and Lovaine Humphrey. It’s a homecoming for Yorkshire-born Adam after running an award-winning Arras in Sydney.
A glamorous back-lit bar replaces the deli and on the mezzanine are bright white walls. Dotted around are primary colour murals, a bold marriage between Fernand Leger and The Simpsons. A love it or hate it paint job. I’m afraid it was the latter for me. Elsewhere, the banquettes are white and padded, the chairs navy pin-striped. The price is £35 for two courses, £45 for three, £55 for five and the message is fine dining.
Everyone knows fine dining comes with obligatory amuse bouches and here come whipped cheese between crisp pastry slices, a miniature mushroom on toast and some excellent crackling with dipping hollandaise. Then another extra, a pea and mint moussey log thing, as smooth as butter and banging with flavour. Full marks all round.
And the main menu? Actually it’s less a menu, more a list of ingredients: scallops, sweetcorn, fennel, quinoa and sea vegetables or roast quail, pumpkin, black beans, quail broth and peanut. There’s not much clue how they will be delivered so make your choice on which ingredients you like and hope for the best.
Our hopes are well-founded. My starter is red mullet scattered with flakes of smoked eel, shaved fennel, matchsticks of raw Nashi pear and edamame beans. It’s a busy plate but with bags of flavour from the red mullet, a touch of smoke and then sweetness from the edamame, all wrapped around with an umami of soy butter.
Also excellent are the marinated vegetables – as light and fresh as a summer morning – with some pleasing chickpea fritters and a smooth green sauce.
Cod with peas and potato, crab and lobster sauce looks a bit of a car crash but tastes fabulous. Flaking cod, plenty of white crab meat and a rich lobster sauce. Humphrey knows his ingredients and flavour combinations.
‘Lamb, Saturday 2am’ was a dish title beyond my understanding, but the sub-title of spiced lamb rump, Moroccan onions, couscous and sumac labneh correctly set my compass in the direction of Marrakesh. And if that’s what you find there at 2am on a Saturday, I’m on the plane. These were not dinky slices of lamb but generous slabs of rump with just enough spices – cinnamon, cumin – to be over the top Middle Eastern.
Desserts don’t quite reach the dizzy heights of the first two courses. ‘Not Terry’s’(get it?) is Humphrey’s take on the famous chocolate orange globe: a dense chocolate ball and some orangey jam. ‘Toffee, coffee, crunch’ sounds and looks the business for an indulgent finish but it’s more style than substance in an overwrought plate of jelly spirals, chocolatey curls and crumbs.
A wiser choice in hindsight would have been the cheese chariot (£6 extra) delivered to a neighbouring table by Humphrey himself.
So a different but most honourable replacement for the much-mourned Le Langhe. Wisely, they’ve come up with a totally different offer (apart from collaring that wine collection). Arras is modern, exciting and predominantly well executed. York just keeps getting better.
Arras, the Old Coach House, Peaseholme Green, York. 01904 633737, arrasrestaurant.co.uk. Open: Tuesday to Friday, 12-2.30pm; Tuesday to Saturday, 6pm-9.30pm.