It’s seven years since a top-hatted doorman stood guard at the Grand Hotel to greet its first customers. The owners had spent £30m transforming the Edwardian listed building – the former HQ of the North Eastern Railway and later GNER – into a 107-bedroom hotel with spa, whisky lounge, cocktail bar and restaurant right in the heart of York. Even before the tourist authority had graded them they were grandly announcing themselves as “York’s first five-star hotel”.
I ate here soon after opening. It was a hit and mostly miss affair: warm wine, fairy portions and a shameful attempt to pass off regular strawberries as wild. Overpriced and pretentious. I was in no hurry to return. In the years since, various PRs have invited me back for a complimentary meal in exchange for a review. I’ve declined. We don’t accept freebies. Anyway, be careful what you wish for.
In 2014 the Cedar Court Group sold the hotel to the Splendid Hospitality Group, and Craig Atchinson arrived as head chef. His CV includes time at Seaham Hall, then head chef at the Talbot Hotel in Malton and other hotel experience in the Cotswolds and the Isle of Wight. It’s a hefty ship to keep afloat, and there are plans for a further 100 bedrooms, a new casual dining restaurant and a restyled main restaurant. But more importantly to me, some better reports of the food were filtering through so it was time to try again. Anonymous and paying my way, I hasten to add.
The dining room – Hudson’s (after York’s Railway King, George Hudson) – is as handsome as I remember. Decorated in shades of cream and beige, it has the same vast lampshades, sparkling glassware and plenty of starched linen. Some of the service is a bit starchy, too, but then that’s the deal. There are staff all over the shop. After the fellow at the door and the maître d’, there’s someone to unfold your napkin, another to refill your water glass, a sommelier to pour the wine and when the food arrives, a junior to carry the silver tray while a more senior chap puts it on the table. It all helps to account for starters at around £12, mains topping £28, and desserts coyly priced at £9.95.
Happily though, in contrast to my last visit, the food is good rising to very good indeed. Pleasing little tasters of crunch and smoke come in the form of smoked cod’s roe and apple on a charcoal crisp. Excellent bread is served with a curious “beef” butter which I’m guessing is butter whipped up with a demi-glace but tastes much like the butter and Marmite I used to whip up for children’s birthday sandwiches, and that’s not a criticism, it’s first rate.
The menu, which you might call modern British, features small, often complex dishes. There is lamb, sea bass, halibut, steak and a non-meat dish of Jerusalem artichoke, oyster mushroom and sheep’s curd. It all reads interestingly and turns out to be highly proficient on the plate. With one exception.
That is the starter of torched mackerel with cubes of pork belly which brings crisp skinned mackerel with bite and sweetness from the accompanying apple and kohlrabi and pork. But the mackerel broth threatens to ruin the dish; it’s so vinegary it catches the throat. Someone in the kitchen didn’t taste it. Cured and chopped sea trout with red onion and sour cream worked better.
Mains were more complex: sea bass, langoustine, fennel and some nutty buckwheat mixed the luxurious with the humble all working harmoniously together then finished with a rich langoustine sauce. Atchinson’s halibut is equally good, served with turnip, samphire, a mussel sauce and black garlic.
Desserts are mostly a modern take on English classics: poached Yorkshire rhubarb and buttermilk custard, date sponge and salted caramel (AKA sticky toffee pudding) and posh carrot cake with an excellent mandarin ice cream.
Top marks then for feeding us well on a busy Saturday night. Atchinson is cooking at a much higher level than I recall from his time at the Talbot in Malton. Of course, it’s all expensively over the top, but if you’re looking for a treat it’s not called the Grand for nothing.
• The Grand Hotel, Station Rise, York YO1 6GD. 01904 380038, thegrandyork.co.uk. Open daily: 12.30-2.30pm & 6.30-9.45pm. Price: approx. £140 dinner for two inc. bottle wine and service.