The official line was that he and his wife and front of house Lindsey wanted to go travelling. Maybe so but I sensed an element of disenchantment; he’d won every gong going except a Michelin star and the lure of that wretched, lucrative, life-changing accolade gets into the heads of highly driven chefs, especially when they and others believe they deserve it. And plenty of people reckoned that Artisan should have had its star.
Anyway, a year later their travels ended at the Falcon Inn in Withernwick, a Holderness village, which in Yorkshire terms is about as remote a location as can be imagined to relaunch a top chef’s career. Here, undeterred, they repaired and repainted the place and opened with a gutsy menu of roasts and pies, low-key compared with the grace notes of Artisan but with echoes of Hessle in the treacle-cured salmon with mango and chilli salsa, sea bass with pea risotto and ham and Scotch egg.
I remember having a good lunch there but posh pub grub was no stretch for Johns and so it was no surprise when after just 18 months in post, the couple moved on again; the location wasn’t right for them. They popped up briefly in York, working alongside Andrew Pern who was setting up his new venture, Mr P’s Curious Tavern, but no sooner had we taken in this announcement than they told us they were parting on amicable terms to open their own place.
So on a bitter evening we head along the A19 to Raskelf, near Easingwold, to what was the Purple Partridge cafe and is now, after some thorough upgrading, Rascills, the latest and, they promise, the last venture for this determined couple.
These are early days, subject to change, but the starting offer on Tuesday to Saturday evenings is a three-course menu priced at £36.90 with three choices at each course, which looks interesting value. Or on Saturday night you can splash out, as we did on a five-course set menu costing £50. Go on then, Johns, show us your best moves.
Dinner begins with strips of crackling and a dip of apple sauce. It’s followed by olive bread and butter and the smoothest butternut squash soup heady with truffle. We already know we’re in for a treat.
Next up is a delicate salad of leaves and strips of smoked speck. It’s a perfectly balanced plate that brings with it whipped goat’s cheese, a crisp ball of mozzarella, a Parmesan crisp and an intense cube each of beetroot and apple jelly. It’s full of flavour and texture, marrying the goat’s cheese with the bite of the Parmesan crisp and contrasting the smoky ham with a hint of sweetness from the jellies. Simply, one of my dishes of the year.
The dish of scallops that followed was another beautifully presented course. The scallops were perfectly cooked, seared but still tender, on top of a refreshing salad of mango and cucumber finished with lime. There was a delicate avocado mousse, a garnish of coriander leaves and just a spot or two of chilli sauce. A spot or two more kicking in would have suited me.
Lamb was the main course – no small plate this, but a gorgeous, generous serving of rump, slow-roasted and tender, dusted with truffle and served with pea risotto and a mini quail scotch egg. It was an exuberant celebration of Yorkshire lamb at its best and stirred fond taste bud memories of his sumptuous meat cooking at Artisan.
Then pre-dessert. Sorry, but I never understand the pre-dessert thing. If I’m about to have a dessert, I don’t need two. Perhaps chefs feel it necessary to parade these extra bits – the pork crackling at the start, then this shot glass of something creamy and white chocolatey – to justify the price tag. No need on my account.
Onwards then with a choice of chocolate delice or cheese. Refreshingly and unusually, cheese is offered without a surcharge. Four good cheeses, crackers, chutney and celery.
The intense, rich chocolate delice: milk, cream eggs and dark chocolate whipped together and served in a dense block has the help of clotted cream ice cream to offset the intensity and bitterness of the chocolate. Then Johns cleverly brings in raspberry sauce for sharpness and a little square of honeycomb for a buzz of sweetness. Once more a perfectly thought-out plate.
Five courses then (or should we call it seven?) and Johns’ cooking is as sure-footed as ever, sophisticated without being stuck-up, contemporary without being cluttered. Welcome back. Just don’t even think about that Michelin man.
• Rascills Restaurant & Wine Bar, Howker Lane, Raskelf, York YO61 3LF. 01347 822031, rascillsrestaurant.vpweb.co.uk. Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 6.30-8.30pm and the last Sunday of each month from 12.30-3pm. Dinner for two, including bottle of wine and service, approximately £110.