Crapaudine beetroot cooked slowly in beef fat… turbot with strawberries and cream… white chocolate with Douglas fir and lemon verbena. Such are the weird and wonderful dishes that these days define the high end of British cuisine.
You might have seen them on TV – the beetroot on MasterChef, the turbot and the Douglas fir on Great British Menu. All three are the winning creations of Tommy Banks, the wunderkind of the Black Swan in Oldstead, the once down at heel Yorkshire country pub that rose to collect a Michelin star and was even awarded the extravagant accolade of Best Restaurant in the World by the twisted yardstick of TripAdvisor.
You may find all three dishes at Roots, the much-vaunted first offshoot of Banks in York, where long before opening it was as hard to book a table for dinner as it has been at the Black Swan.
The new venue is the old Bay Horse pub, a dour and rambling mock Tudor tavern a stone’s throw from the river. They’ve made a good job of the interior, retaining some Victorian features while adding a contemporary edge with acres of light oak and Oldstead-made tables whose legs are a tangle of metal “roots”.
The food is more informal (and cheaper) than the Black Swan. A dozen smallish dishes under a tenner, larger ones between £14 and £20 and a “Feast” for £50 a head with vegetables taking centre stage. Roots is the operative word, as the home- grown vegetable plot at Oldstead is at the heart of Banks’ inspiration.
The Feast begins with bread. I could have happily chomped through the whole basket of sourdough and the fragile little seeded crackers smeared with their own sour/salty cultured butter.
Immediately underlining Roots’ humble-veg-is-good aesthetic comes a chewy dish of raw kale which takes off with a rich umami dressing of sheep’s yoghurt, horseradish, pickled walnuts, topped with cured egg yolk and hazelnuts. Smoked eel doughnuts made for another delicate little taster, a whiff of coal smoke on an autumn evening rather hijacked by a sweet apple sauce.
The procession of taste and precision marched on through chicken thighs, boned, pressed; sour pea falafel with pork fat and carrots – there’s curing and fermenting throughout – cured trout with Oldstead piccalilli, and then that Crapaudine beetroot.
This is one of Banks’ star turns. He cooked it on MasterChef and only when they run out of Craps (their nickname) beetroot is it off the menu. The name of this old French variety means “female toad” for its thick, gnarly skin. They say it’s been cultivated for 1,000 years, though not commercially since it’s hard to germinate and a devil to grow. To keep it on the menu year round at both restaurants, the Banks clan need to harvest 10,000 of them.
Tommy bakes it slowly in beef fat for four hours so that the ugly old beet is transformed to a meaty texture, deep, dark, dense, sweet and earthy with a hint of smoke. To lighten it, he adds beads of goat’s curd, discs of pickled beetroot and linseed crackers. It is totally transformative. If there is a gold standard for beetroot this is it.
Skate wing with a superior tartar sauce, a scattering of hazelnuts and a tangle of fries is terrific, too. These are not any old fries, but fine strings of potato, fermented then deep-fried to a crisp. Our last plate before dessert is charcoal grilled skirt steak, generous, soft, tender pink slices with a crunch of pickled onion and gorgeous “hash brown” chips.
Another “as seen on TV” plate brought white chocolate, Douglas fir and lemon verbena in an assembly of dynamic flavours. It was created in memory of Tommy’s grandfather and saw him shed a TV gold tear as it earned a maximum 10 from the judges on Great British Menu, winning it not once, but twice.
Impressed as I am by the commitment involved in foraging in the woods around Oldstead to make oil from the resinous fir and then using it in the parfait, I must confess to being less overwhelmed than the judges. It has a heady citrus astringency with a hint of perfume and a taste of Haribo. Everyone else on the table loved it so I shall try again.
My maximum 10 would have gone instead to the roasted rye, carrot caramel shortbread, an unctuous sweet, gooey, nutty mixture of distilled chicory root, carrot syrup, candied carrots and rye crumbs – where trifle meets tiramisu and a superb finale to a remarkable dinner. An honourable mention, too, for Roots’ own label wine which comes daringly in an unlabelled bottle, an aromatic blend of Muscat, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.
Should we worry about Tommy Banks spreading his fabulous talent too thinly? There are ample examples of brilliant chefs going on TV, publishing glossy and impractical cookbooks, and opening spin-off restaurants that never match up to the original. Time will tell but, having eaten twice at Roots in its opening week, I can confirm that Banks is off to a flying start.
Oh, and if that waiting list for dinner is too daunting, midweek lunchtimes did have tables to spare. Whatever your misgivings about small plates and 12- course meals – and I have plenty – check it out because Roots is at the cutting edge of modern British restaurant food.
Roots York, 68 Marygate, York YO30 7BH; www.rootsyork.com, reservations www.exploretock.com; open: Wednesday-Monday, 12-2pm and 5.30-8.30pm, closed Tuesday; price: dinner for two including wine and service approx. £150.