A classic touch

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Does Harrogate need another restaurant, and a French one to boot given there are at least two already in the town?

Mirabelle restaurant was opened quietly in November by chef-owner (chef-patron if I am to give his correct French title) Lionel Strub who is well known for Fennel restaurant and deli in Wetherby which closed last year.

It sits below the Studley Royal Hotel on Swan Road and its closest neighbour at the opposite end of the building is the renowned Orchid restaurant.

Where Fennel was large and bustling, Mirabelle is a petite, bijou little number. It is striking in its understated, classy décor with a neat bar-cum-waiting area adjacent to the 35 cover dining room. In some hands this room would have seated nearer 45 but here they have chosen privacy and space over number.

This is a restaurant not a bistro-brasserie and as such has a refined menu steeped in French classicism yet is stripped of any pretension. Lionel has taken archetypal dishes and somehow made them sound newer and more modern.

Among the starters they don’t get simpler than Shetland mussels in saffron broth, chicken liver and cranberry chutney, or more enticing than Crottin de Chevre tart or (my choice) Coquille St Jacques with a lobster risotto.

If these sound good their price tag adds further appeal starting at only £3.95 and stretching up to £8.95. Mains only top the £20 mark with the beef filet which given it includes everything including the hand- cut chips is a steal. The regular menu is supported by a fish specials which varies daily.

I wanted to see Lionel’s renowned cooking stretched just a little, so nothing too safe was chosen. Scallops, so quick to cook but so easy to get wrong by even a few seconds in the pan, came fat and plump and tender with just a breath of caramelisation.

Sitting on top of risotto mounds which were not simply flavoured with lobster but contained nuggets of sweet claw meat, this was one of the high notes of dinner.

Ham hock terrine came as a wedge, not a slice, and was proudly presented on a large, beautifully decorated square plate. A quail’s egg had been given a Scotch-egg style makeover from being wrapped in boudin noir and finished with a light, crispy crumb coating.

We were so enchanted with our food I realised we were eating in near silence until I was so delighted to see rabbit on the menu I almost squealed. It is one of my favourite meats and one sadly that is often overlooked in British restaurants.

This bunny came l’Alsacienne in a light mustard and tarragon sauce with (more squeals of delight) another restaurant rarity – buttered spatzle (tiny pasta).

Alsace is Lionel’s region and his roots shone in this perfectly balanced dish. The meat was so tender it literally fell from the bone and the mustardy rich sauce was a perfect partner for the soft, buttery spatzle. A hearty, but not heavy dish of perfect winter food.

What French menu would not have duck somewhere and here it came as a classic magret (breast) cooked to chef’s liking which turned out to be a perfect pink.

A thumbnail-sized pie contained confit of duck and alongside came a dish of gratin dauphinois potato. All would have been perfect had it stopped there but alongside the potatoes I saw the ubiquitous dish of British veg. What?

Never, never, never would a self-respecting French restaurant serve a pile of broccoli, cauli and carrots, and I suspect, neither would Lionel if his customers didn’t want it. I didn’t but there it was and there it stayed untouched.

Not so on surrounding tables. I watched as food was served on three tables and the vegetables were the first thing the diners reached for. I guess it must be me then.

Sitting close by us and frequently catching my eye through dinner, was a small table of cheeses, and replete as I was I had left a scrap of room for a few slivers. The cheese board is again, easy to do but even easier to get wrong. This one grabbed full marks for choice, for freshness and for temperature and its accompaniments of celery, grapes, carefully sculpted apple, walnut bread, and (don’t ask me why), honey.

Crepes Suzette was probably the only low(ish) note in a great dinner. The classic pancakes with a cointreau and orange sauce were a tad on the heavy side. The sauce was way too powerful but I’m sure with a little restraint could have been good. All was eaten so it can’t have been too bad.

We had arrived at the restaurant quite early and by the end of meal the place was buzzing and every table full. Classy as it is, Mirabelle is the sort of place to celebrate a special meal but equally great for supper with friends or a catch-up over a meal.

Manager Tom and his staff are poised harmoniously with the kitchen, they flit about effortlessly and seem always to have the time to chat to guests.

And the final flourish – the bill. Three courses each, four glasses of wine and a port from a list that is priced sensibly enough to allow enjoyment, an amuse of white onion veloute with lemon rapeseed oil and a basket of focaccia style bread – total a whisper over £80. Harrogate most certainly needs this restaurant. Wetherby’s loss is their gain and I hope they appreciate it.

Mirabelle Restaurant, 28a Swan Road, Harrogate, HG1 2SE Tel: 01423 565551. Open: Monday 5pm-9:30pm; Tuesday-Saturday noon-2:30pm, 5pm-9:30pm.