Rarely has there been such a fuss about a restaurant opening than in October 2013 when Andrew Pern, the Michelin-starred chef of the Star Inn at Harome. launched his second restaurant in a former pumping station on the banks of the River Ouse in York
The old brick Engine House expanded to a grand design in steel and glass with half a million spent, 130 covers, 50 eager young staff decked out in Yorkshire tweed and 5,000 bookings in the first 24 hours. A veritable gastrodome. A showcase of Pern dishes in a spectacular space in a stunning setting. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, it was a baptism of fire. Coffee was served by the cup because someone forgot to order the cafetieres. Unseasonal autumn sunshine found diners sweating over their Posh Prawn Cocktail in the plate glass dining room until blinds were hastily installed. Service was all over the place. Food came out slowly, cold or sometimes not at all. I know some who vowed never to return.
Then there were the flat caps. Pern’s predilection for ‘eeh bah gummery’ ran to serving bread in a flat cap. The critics had a field day. One national critic wrote a scalding review of the flat caps and food was barely mentioned amid the ‘salad o’t day’ jokes. The food was mostly good but service was a work in progress.
Four years on and 10 days of refurbishment seemed a good time to revisit the Star and take a look at the new menu, the service and the bread delivery. There’s fresh paint, re-sanded floors and a general spruce up, of which the most striking innovation is four mighty copper barrels and a network of pipes leading directly to the bar.
The tanks each contain 500 litres of Pilsner Urquell – delivered by tanker direct from the brewery in the Czech Republic. This apparently is the king of lagers, full of flavour and supplied in this way to only a handful of outlets in the UK. It is indeed a cut above most lagers I’ve had, and at £5.50 a pint, so it should be.
You’re paying of course for the whole package: the restored Engine House; the new build and the lovely Garden Room, and a cracking view of the riverside. It’s looking as good as ever. The less popular River Room has been painted a modish grey, cutting back on the blokish rugby themed decor.
As ever the new menu goes big on seasonal and local: rhubarb, Jerusalem artichoke, January King cabbage and so on. Pern has always set the standard for local produce. What’s so clever is his skill in upgrading the familiar and the ordinary.
Sensibly the revamped menu has retained old favourites. Take his Posh Prawn Cocktail. There are peeled prawns but then he gives us oak smoked salmon, green pea puree, marinated tomatoes, fresh basil and a masterful Bloody Mary sorbet. The latter is so good I’ve started making it myself at home.
Ceps in the City (he still can’t resist puns) also stays on the menu. It’s Pern’s riff on mushrooms on toast but with wild mushrooms wrapped in a tarragon and truffle flavoured cream and piled on a toasted muffin. Marvellous again.
No one makes deep fried calamari like he does either. Giant rings of tender squid, a coating of proper breadcrumbs, deep fried at just the right temperature for crumb and crunch but totally grease-free it almost seems healthy especially when accompanied by squid ink aioli and samphire.
A crab salad with curried granola was a pleasing new addition, so too the cured salmon, but it’s not all perfect. Butter roast halibut was a touch overdone and though it was served with perfectly fine braised salsify, pickled fennel and tiny cubes of saffron potato, it was a bit ascetic. It lacked that comfort quality that is another Pern hallmark.
Yorkshire rhubarb baked Alaska also failed to win me over. The sponge cake base was dry. The snowy mound of meringue encased raw rhubarb.
But I’ve eaten enough here to be assured that the quality is much more dependable. The service that had caused so much trouble was spot on, too: informed, professional and charming, personified by the young girl who gave us a seminar on the Pilsner Urquell.
As for Pern he seems as restless as ever. Last year he opened Mr P’s Curious Tavern in York’s Petergate. By the summer he should have a brand new restaurant in his beloved Whitby. The Star at Harome celebrates its 21st year, an enduring Yorkshire treasure and last month collected Best UK Gastropub award. Pern has made one concession to his critics though. The flat caps have gone; now the bread comes on a sawn-off log.
• The Star Inn the City, Lendal Engine House, Museum Street, York YO1 7DR. 01904 619208, starinnthecity.co.uk. Open daily: 9.30am-til late. Price: Dinner for two £130 for three courses inc. wine and service.
DRINKS SELECTION 5/5