When my Sunday lunch begins with amuses gueules consisting of a nasturtium flower stuffed with a morsel of mushroom; pressed linseed crackers topped with cubes of ox tongue; a goat’s cheese and beetroot tart; and a chicken dumpling with roast garlic, I’m normally at the front of the queue to pour scorn on chefs with pretensions. Not this time. These “snacks” as they call them were utterly delicious. Welcome to the Black Swan.
The drinks menu is another original: half a dozen of their own cocktails: subtle sophisticated mixes using available ingredients: kale martini, damson sour, fennel fizz, aperitifs of chervil root rum, lemon thyme cello, and fennel schnapps. The wine list ranges exotically from a wild ferment Assyrtiko Gaia from Santorini to a Beqaa Valley Chateau Musar. And, to three loud cheers. There are enough equally inventive soft drinks to keep abstemious drivers happy including my wonderful not-too-sweet ginger beer, with a kick of chili.
The story of how the Black Swan soared from village pub in a sleepy setting near Byland Abbey to Michelin stardom is well documented but remarkable enough to stand retelling. In 2006, farmers Tom and Anne Banks took over with a view to finding a future beyond farming for their two sons James and Tommy. They found an ambitious young chef by the name of Adam Jackson, placed James front of house and Tommy, fresh from school, in the kitchen. Between them they took the Black Swan from that workaday country pub to a garlanded destination restaurant in just five years.
But there is another chapter to this story. In 2013, a year after they gained their star, Adam Jackson surprised everyone by upping sticks to do his own thing, first at Sutton on Forest and latterly at Marmadukes Hotel in York, leaving Tommy Banks to step up to the stove and maintain the treasured star. No pressure then.
He admits to panic. “I was under a lot of pressure. I liked Adam’s food a lot and at first I carried on doing the same, but I knew I had to find my own style, but I had no idea what my style was.”
Then last year they began developing a kitchen garden, though being farmers it’s more field than garden – a five-acre sloping site that had no decent topsoil and is regularly raided by pigeons.
The kitchen staff manage it themselves, sometimes only getting out to water it after evening service but they have established potatoes, radish, carrots, fennel, herbs, tomatoes, soft fruit, the lot, and it’s this freshly picked produce that dictates what Tommy Banks puts on the plate.
The five or nine course set menu (with full blown versions for vegetarians and pescatarians) buzzes with fruit, flowers, herbs and miniature vegetables. They are cultivating their own mushrooms and installing beehives.
The first of our five courses was fizzing with young vegetables: radish, turnip, carrot – both cooked and raw – there was the addition of some crunchy toasted hazelnuts and a dash of soothing sheep’s milk yoghurt. It’s hard to think of a dish more garden-fresh.
Next a small trout fillet was paired with exquisitely fried squid, radish, a dash of squid ink and a drop of mayonnaise and never stumped with what to do with a basket of woody radishes, they produce a radish broth to pour over the salmon. It’s sweet and delicate even if it does turn muddy with the squid ink.
Herb-fed chicken is poached with more garden herbs then given an intoxicating kick with a leek and hen-of-the-woods mushroom sauce. This is a full-on, deep, heady umami powerhouse of a sauce.
I’ve never seen the point of a pre-dessert. Who needs two puddings? There is some justification here. We are brought three perfectly round lollies, like those chalky penny lollies you had as a kid. These though are soft and creamy and as our waitress explains, eaten from right to left, they go from savoury to sweet, to ease us into dessert proper.
I can’t say I’ve ever needed to be eased into pudding, but these are wonderful. We begin with mushroom and white chocolate, move onto fennel and elderberry and finish with rosemary and apple. All very witty but crucially a treat on the tongue.
Dessert is called ‘heather honey and flowers’ and is just that: a pretty collation of purple viola flowers, heather honey sorbet, honey meringue, honeycomb and viola jam.
The honey is there, but it’s subtle, the sweetness balanced with a spot of elderflower vinegar. Once more it all tastes delightfully spring fresh.
When a restaurant of this calibre loses its head chef it invariably experiences a wobble but the Black Swan has gone from strength to greater strength.
That kitchen garden has inspired Tommy Banks to new discoveries, new directions and has helped him find a fully fledged identity that is all his own, remarkable in a 26-year-old who came here straight from school and learned on the job.
His mother Anne Banks, whose attention to detail underwrites the whole smooth operation, drives the impeccable service.
Quite simply the Black Swan has never been better. The very best of Yorkshire. Go now.
The Black Swan, Oldstead, York North Yorkshire YO61 4BL. 01347 868387, www. blackswanoldstead.co.uk. Open: daily, 6pm-9pm and Saturday and Sunday, 12-2pm.
Price: Five courses £55 per person plus wine or nine courses £80 (three course lunch is £32).