The Durham Ox is an old favourite still ploughing a welcome foodie furrow, writes Elaine Lemm.
It has been a whirlwind of a year for eating out in Yorkshire with much covered in detail on these pages. There have been openings from the celebrity to the highly contentious; the independent sector has suffered but interestingly not as severely as the chains and lamentably, too many closings for which the county is much worse off.
So, for my last review of 2018 I am heading to an old favourite ignored for far too long – the Durham Ox at Crayke in North Yorkshire, an inn which is currently celebrating the run-up to its 19th birthday and justifiably proud that it has been family owned for all those years. At the helm are Michael and Sasha Ibbotson, both renowned operators and it shows at this lovely picture-book country pub all dressed to kill for Christmas, twinkling, cosy and on a Friday night at 6.45pm, full to bursting; thankfully we had booked.
The Ox is still very much a pub and part of the community. In the coming weeks at what is (hopefully) a hectic time for everyone in this business there is a Friendship Christmas Lunch for 79, the lunch is a monthly get-together reaching out to those in the community who feel lonely or may not be getting out too often. The Crayke School children are coming in to sing carols, and there is the village Curry and Carols night coming up also complete with a brass band; Michael and Sasha like a challenge.
This being Christmas there is an embarrassment of food to choose from. There’s the usual à la carte, and there are daily specials, Christmas offerings as well as vegetarian, children’s and on and on, I am exhausted just looking at it. Thankfully, Michael and Sasha have an extremely competent crew in the kitchen with renowned executive chef Jason Moore and head chef Robert Lacey and their brigade negotiating their way through.
The food here is comfortably approachable, exciting in its familiarity – by that, I do not mean it is staid, far from it – and the use of local, seasonal produce is exemplary. We are steering clear of Christmas at this point and are both enthusing over what to eat. We kick back and go classic comfort food which they do here by the bucket load.
Sticky, spicy belly pork with chilli, honey, sesame dressing and an Asian Salad does not disappoint; it indeed is sticky lip-smackingly delicious.
French onion soup is for me the ultimate soothing dish but not the easiest to make well. Here it is supported by a beef stock (take note vegetarians) which gives the right background depth. Thankfully, it is not swamped with onions, which many are resulting in a thick more gravy-like dish, and there’s a hefty, cheesy crouton bobbing around on the top. I love it.
I watch across the table as he meticulously dissects his half Gressingham duck served à la orange.
He is someone who does not like meat on the bone or fatty foods, so his choice is interesting.
What he does love is duck, particularly with orange, so by the time he has removed the skin, he tucks in with relish, it is an excellent flavour, there’s plenty of meat, and the talented chefs have managed to avoid the mistake of a cloying sauce with this dish. There a small slab of Dauphinoise, red cabbage and some excellent beans and tenderstem alongside, so all in all this is a hearty, nourishing dish.
I am totally in love with my North Sea fish pie served in a cast iron pot with seasonal (perfectly cooked) vegetables. The potato is fluffy, the sauce creamy yet light and there is a vast array of fish to pick and poke through.
On a roll with tradition, we share a textbook Bakewell tart with vanilla custard. Yum.
All of this choice and busyness does come at a price (not the cost) unfortunately. There is so much to do to make sure everyone is fed and watered in a timely fashion, and we are for sure. There are no long pauses, drinks arrive and food is perfectly cooked, we never feel hurried but those serving, and there are plenty of them, are kind, polite, efficient, but do not at any point engage with us which is a shame.
The Durham Ox is a lovely place and I am so thankful it is not too far from where I live, and I will not be ignoring it again. Places like this deserve our support, and there is no point moaning when your local pub or inn has gone if you don’t support it while it is there. The sheer hard work of keeping somewhere like the Ox alive, kicking and moving with the times while retaining the real roots of these precious places is not easy. Thank you, Michael, Sasha, and your whole crew for your hard work.
The Durham Ox, Westway, Crayke, YO61 4TE Tel: 01347 821506.
Dinner for two with a couple of glasses of wine £82.75
Lunch served Monday–Saturday, noon–2.30pm, Sunday, noon–4pm; Dinner, Monday-Saturday 5.30pm-9.30pm, Sunday, 5.30pm-8.30pm.