The Durham Ox is a fine old 17th century coaching inn in Crayke, a classically picturesque North Yorkshire village of stone and mellow brick, clipped greensward and a hilltop church which gives spectacular, long distance views across the Vale of York.
Indeed, Crayke's prominent hill appears perfectly designed to support the nursery rhyme legend that this is where the Grand Old Duke of York marched his 10,000 men up and down, until the pedantic historian points out that this could only have happened at Sandal Castle, 40 miles south at Wakefield. Nevertheless, like the village, the Ox lives up to a tried and trusted rural English stereotype with crusty old beams, flagstones, carved panelling and blood-red walls with abundant polished oak, candles and jugs of fresh flowers. Where modern taste has intruded with fabrics and furnishings, it is largely harmonious.
This August, Michael Ibbotson celebrated 10 years of ownership at the Ox, a decade marked by a number of awards, a consistent reputation for good food and a consistent flow of customers through its doors. So successful, in fact, that Ibbotson used the anniversary to launch Provenance Inns, a string of three Yorkshire pubs "in villages you would like to live in" to be refurbished then rolled out over the next few months based on the Durham Ox model.
Not a chain or a brand, insists Ibbotson, but "a collection". His fellow collector and business partner is Chris Blundell, ex-Heinz, ex-director of Morrison Supermarkets, a food consultant and farmer. Their three new pubs are in Helperby, Brafferton and Felixkirk, all
in Hambleton District, which if they live up to Durham Ox standards will make Hambleton a formidable hub of eating out in pubs.
But what exactly is the Durham Ox model that is about to be so ambitiously rolled out? The menu, supported by daily blackboard specials and fish, certainly reads well enough, except perhaps for vegetarians or the gourmand looking for a unique molecular experiment.
A mix of snacks and light meals listed as "Simple and Tasty" include fish and chips, ham and eggs, Coronation chicken sandwich, eggs Florentine all priced between 6 and 12. The la carte is made up of sturdy, vaguely British dishes scattered with regional produce like Mount Grace beef, Ridings Farm lamb and Yellison goat's cheese, a lovely new cheese made at Yellison Farm in Carleton in Craven. Prices range from an average 7 for starters to mains peaking at 19 for the rib-eye steak. There's duck confit, Chateaubriand for two and Barnsley chop.
Service is brisk, well informed and friendly. We are promptly seated at a round oak table by the bar. Menus, iced water, bread and a dish of olives arrive as we watch a steady stream of diners arrive, many of them clearly regulars. By the time our starters are on the table, there's an agreeable buzz in the bar, the cash register is ringing, a Tuesday evening is shaping up like a Friday night.
We go for the goat's cheese starter. The Yellison cheese has been gently crumbled through soft leaves with the addition of seasonal peas and broad beans, stripped of their bitter outer shell and dressed with a honey and mint vinaigrette. It's a beauty. Every element is allowed its voice but they all combine perfectly together, and as a clever solo it is topped with a delicate goat's cheese fritter, crisp outside and warm and giving inside.
Another summer starter, a pea and mint risotto, simply didn't cut it on the same level. The consistency was good but the flavour poor, apart from the shavings of Parmesan. A fistful of mint and a proper rich stock would have made a world of difference. No such misgivings with the bangers and mash. A stonking plate of mash, onions, meaty sausages and a satisfying puddle of red onion gravy was in the best tradition of democratic pub grub to suit all tastes. Indeed, the table opposite – three generations of mum, dad, granny and teenage boys – were tucking into similarly hearty dishes of rib-eye steak and barnaise sauce, pork chops and fish and chips (battered in Black Sheep beer).
In line with the predominant English theme, the pudding menu is reliably traditional: Bakewell tart, sticky toffee pudding, crme brle and elderflower jelly and ice cream. Our Bakewell had good crisp pastry, quality raspberry jam and a gorgeous layer of moist, warm, almond sponge served with pouring cream.
There is a decent selection of real ale and the wine list, with 23 varieties by the glass, has house vin de pays at 13.95 rising to 85 for a Deuxieme Cru 2002 claret from Chateau Leoville Barton.
For those interested in mark-ups, the Ox is unusually and commendably forthright in listing its off-licence prices: you can take away the house wine for 8 or that Bordeaux for 44.
Let Michael Ibbotson, the birthday boy, have the last word on the Ox and his new collection: "We just want to create friendly, local, family-orientated pubs, where people can eat well, enjoy a drink and stay the night, in the best tradition of British inns." It's a fair verdict on his 10 years at Crayke.
Durham Ox, Westway, Crayke, York YO61 4TE, 01347 821506.
Open: Mon-Sun noon-2.30pm (3pm Sat/Sun) and 6pm-9.30pm (10pm Sat / 8.30pm Sun).
Price: Dinner for two with a bottle of house wine, coffee and service is about 80.
YP MAG 4/9/10