Memories of Scarborough? My earliest was as a child going to Peasholm Park and the open air theatre where I saw a magical production of Carousel on the island in the middle of the lake. No doubt Max Jaffa was on at the Spa. These days it’s Britney Spears at the open air theatre in August. Times change but Scarborough can still pull them in.
This year it’s also, rather surprisingly, pulled in a Michelin-starred chef. I don’t know what Ollie Moore makes of his new Scarborough home with its brew of the glorious and shabby, tasteful and tacky. He is the new chef at Ox Pasture Hall country house hotel in a lush wooded valley, three miles inland. He’s never been to Scarborough before; indeed he says he’s never been this far north in his life.
Moore took over as head chef in February after six years at the Black Rat in Winchester, where he retained its Michelin star. He took off for Spain but after a year the heat, the lack of seasons and consequent absence of seasonal foods persuaded him and his girlfriend to come home and he fetched up at the Ox.
There’s been quite a local flutter over his appointment. Ox Pasture Hall is better known for weddings than for fine dining so will Moore be able to turn its pleasantly formal dining room and conservatory into a destination restaurant? I’ve no doubt his bosses hope so though Moore himself claims he’s not chasing stars. “That gets you nowhere,” he insists. Maybe so, but despite many critics of the Michelin system, myself included, nothing is better guaranteed to put bums on restaurant seats than a star.
For the moment, it’s evolution not revolution at the Ox with a £22.50 three- course lunch menu, five starters and mains (more expansively, dinner is £30 for three courses), with, rather sweetly, discounts for pensioners. Self-evidently, that’s terrific value.
Fish and chips and steak and ale pie are still on the menu, but they have been discreetly shifted to the bottom of the page, separately listed as “Classics”. Moore is unapologetic. “If people want a steak and ale pie, we’ll give them the best steak and ale pie they’ve ever had,” he says. But at the same time he’s setting the Ox’s clientele some fresh challenges by introducing the likes of crispy pig’s ears, egg yolk jam, fish foam, matcha rice pudding, nettle bread and wild garlic soup.
Moore has a reputation for using wild herbs and foraged berries. He promises to make pickles and jams from the local hedgerows and his wild garlic soup made for a good start, vibrant, fresh and green, with a subtle whiff of garlic without being strident. The poached egg, however, was overcooked and clunky.
No reservations about our other starter, crushed Jersey Royals with whipped goat’s curd and tiny broad beans. A simple, seasonal and satisfying dish.
An accurately cooked cod loin and poppy seed spätzle in which tiny pieces of dough are dropped into boiling water to add the starch component to the cod, was excellent. There was dried shrimp to give a savoury kick and while I’m not sure what the fish foam adds, let’s settle for harmless garnish.
A smooth celeriac and lovage puree worked well with pork tenderloin and crisp fried potato bubble and squeak and the crispy ears. I last had pig’s ears in the Turk’s Head in Leeds where they were a bit too recognisably ear-like and squeakily chewy for my taste, but here cut into small strips, breadcrumbed and deep fried they were delicious (as almost anything breadcrumbed and deep fried invariably is).
I had my reservations about Moore’s desserts for all that this was his original forte as he was making his name. The Granny Smith parfait with frozen shortbread and sorrel syrup looked great: a cylinder of frozen apple filled with creamy parfait and broken biscuit yet somehow it was more proficient than exciting. A slab of chocolate delice was also fine, but the cherryade sorbet? Well, I guess you like cherryade with your chocolate or you don’t. It was a taste too synthetic for me.
With those exceptions, Moore has made an interesting start at Ox Pasture Hall and I had to keep reminding myself I was getting all this for £22.50. His attention to detail and doing the seemingly simple things well was impressive, best illustrated by nothing more exotic than the bread that came out first. Two perfectly formed bread rolls. A white lemon and thyme roll and a jet black squid and Parmesan roll served with whipped and burnt butter. Both were beautifully made, well flavoured, fresh and delicious. If this is a sample of things to come, watch this space.
As we left, a couple came in and ordered afternoon tea, a very proper tower of sandwiches, scones and miniature cakes. We strolled through the statuary around the well-kept lawns and borders. Back down at the front in Scarborough, the sun was out and the council painters were putting a fresh coat of paint on the Spa. All was well with the world.
Ox Pasture Hall Hotel, Lady Edith Drive, Scarborough, YO12 5TD. www.oxpasturehallhotel.com, email [email protected], phone 01723 365295. Price: dinner for two, including wine and service, approximately £92.