Park in Masham’s Market Square, Yorkshire’s biggest and arguably finest. It never ceases to amaze, with the church and spire floodlit at one end and the glow of pubs illuminating the handsome Georgian buildings. It could be a period film location. In fact, it has been, in Ken Loach’s Days of Hope. It also features in JL Carr’s first novel A Day in Summer and it’s looking good.
The same can be said for Vennell’s just a few steps down Silver Street. I’ve known it intermittently for 20 years from when it was Floodlite and again when it became Vennell’s in 2005 and always liked its independence and individuality. The one downside was a rather odd upstairs/downstairs layout while its gloomy aubergine paintwork and frosted windows gave off a message of keep out instead of come in. It always looked a bit private which can’t have done much for passing trade.
Then on New Year’s Day, after the final Auld Lang Syne, Jon and Laura Vennell locked the door and called in the decorators. Good decision. Now, the frost has melted and you can see in and see out, at best with a view of that floodlit spire. Now you can have a sociable pre-dinner drink upstairs rather than in strange isolation downstairs.
The decorators called in were Forge Interiors of Bedale who did wonders for York’s de luxe Cedar Court Grand hotel and you can see the link. The deep aubergine walls (they do like aubergine), the subtle grey paintwork, the oversized designer lampshades, the statement wallpaper of climbing figs, and splashes of gold in lamps and mirrors. It’s a sleek refurb in a town better known for beer and sheep.
So what will locals make of venison Carpaccio, olive-oil poached salmon or warm chocolate fondant? They may well have seen them before because despite the glitzy makeover, the one thing that appeared to be missing was an equally madeover menu. Here are Jon Vennell’s tried and tested dishes, well honed, carefully balanced, beautifully presented. We’re not complaining, well, only a little. We were expecting a few more surprises.
The familiar, though, was pretty good. Venison Carpaccio is a banker. It sounds good with wafer thin slices of venison stuffed with foie gras given a punch from a mound of vinegary julienned vegetables and finished with a dash of truffle oil and Parmesan shavings. And it was good. The only dilemma was between savouring it by the morsel or greedily wolfing it down. If, by comparison, the caramelised scallops were less glamorous, the Jerusalem artichoke puree on which they sat was smooth perfection.
A main that involved stuffing a chicken breast with truffle mousse, slicing it and placing on top of a rich mushroom risotto, made for a heady dish. Add to that some leeks, a biscuit of baked Parmesan and a touch of foam (yes, chefs are still mesmerised by foams) and you’ve got another smart plateful.
There is nothing smart about suet. It is seared in the memory from the damp, grey and pallid puddings my grandmother used to turn out (my grandfather was a butcher and made his own suet). If you have similar suet memories and you see it on the menu here, push through the pain barrier because this is a different kettle of slow-cooked oxtail altogether. First of all, it is an individual golden parcel of flaky loveliness, filled with a mix of rich, tender oxtail and mushrooms. On the side, minute steak – superfluous, in my book – smooth and creamy mashed potato, a parcel of savoy cabbage and a puddle of rich jus, aka gravy. It’s a winner. It’s long been on the Vennell menu and if it ain’t broke…
And on to puddings. There was a selection of Yorkshire cheeses: Brafford’s goat, smoked Ribblesdale, buffalo blue, Yorkshire brie and Fountains Gold. There was warm chocolate fondant and rhubarb fool. Our choice, a trio of iced desserts which had a creamy vanilla, a sharp passion fruit sorbet and iced mango parfait, was excellent on all three counts.
The bread rolls were oven-hot, good and home-made, I’d wager. The wine list was progressively serious but we were driving and didn’t want a bottle. I wasn’t that impressed by the by-the-glass section with all the dozen or so choices identically priced at £5 to £7 for small and large glasses. There was nothing to splash out on, the recommendations to partner our dishes were discouragingly tentative and the end results were humdrum. Coffee was a generous cafetiere with home-made fudge.
Vennell’s, without being remotely snooty, is more jacket than jeans and jumper. The meticulous presentation of each plate reinforces the feeling that you are being treated to a special night out rather than tucking into another belly pork in another scrubbed-up pub.
Jon Vennell is clearly a perfectionist in the kitchen. He keeps his menu short and sharp by repetition and sensible tweaking. It is a model for a compact family-run restaurant. My only concern is that while his dishes are original and proven his regulars might find them coming round too often. He’s good enough to break out a new box of fireworks and light up Masham all over again.
Vennells Restaurant, 7 Silver Street, Masham, HG4 4DX T: 01765 689000 Email: email@example.com Web: www.vennellsrestaurant.co.uk
Open: Wednesday to Saturday 7.15pm-11.30pm. Sunday from 12.30pm
Price for three-course meal for two including coffee, bottle wine and service, about £88.