The Best of 2015 – The Black Swan at Oldstead

Fine Dining Review

This Summer, I got engaged. I’ll spare you the details, but it was perfect. There was a picnic, a beautiful view of Ilkley Moor, the traditional ‘down on one knee’ – the boy did good.

Ilkley Moor

A proposal with a view

After I stopped screaming and eventually remembered to say yes, Rob handed me a piece of paper. Titled ‘The Lisa Farrell Engagement menu’, it mapped out Rob’s ‘thank God you said yes, let’s celebrate!’ plans. Hands still trembling, I skimmed the menu to find seven very exciting words:

Trip to The Black Swan at Oldstead

I confess, I didn’t know much about The Black Swan at Oldstead. I knew it existed. I knew it was one of Yorkshire’s six Michelin Star restaurants. And to be honest, that was enough. But I continued reading, eyes widening at words like ‘canapés’, ‘tasting menu’ and ‘lots of wine’. Yep, Rob knows me well. It sounded like the perfect way to celebrate our engagement, but what I didn’t realise was that The Black Swan at Oldstead was not only about to become my best meal of 2015, but of my entire life.

Letting the last five minutes sink in, I sipped prosecco as Rob explained why he’d chosen The Black Swan. He had me at vegetables. Because somehow, he’d managed to find that rare Michelin Star restaurant that puts vegetables on a pedestal. Where a tomato is as prized as a fillet steak. Where vegetables aren’t an accompaniment to a dish; they’re the main event. I downed my prosecco and we packed away our picnic, Rob’s words fluttering in my stomach like confetti. Too good to be true? Let’s see, shall we?

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Degustation at The Man Behind the Curtain

 

Disclaimer: I was invited to sample The Man Behind the Curtain’s Degustation menu free of charge in exchange for an honest, unbiased review on The Culture Vulture (where this post originally featured). 

PEA at The Man Behind the Curtain

PEA at The Man Behind the Curtain

I’m staring at my plate. Not eating, just staring. My partner has given up waiting for me, devouring the dish on his plate with a symphony of satisfied noises that are slowly weakening my resolve. I want to join him; I’m dying to join him, but not yet. I need to relish this moment for just a little bit longer.

Seconds before, the dish on this plate was just a string of enigmatic words. “PEA,” the menu read. “Hot and cold.” The chef arrived, clutching a trio of silver pots, a steaming silver jug and a frosted glass dish. It began simply; a lime green quenelle perched on the glass dish, adorned with a sprinkle of crispy onions and a few delicate leaves. Then it happened. I watched as my plate became a canvas, daubed with layers of colour by our chef-turned-expressionist artist. A splash of green, followed by swirls of purple, orange and crimson. It was extraordinary. The chef stood back, admired his masterpiece, then returned to the kitchen; his pointed silver heels clicking as he walked.

I think I’m ready. I take my spoon and reluctantly disturb the painting, scooping up each of the layers. I put the spoon in my mouth. And I start laughing. I can’t help it; it’s genius. Mirroring the expressionist flair with which the chef created the dish in front of me, the flavours of each layer surge in colourful waves around my mouth. There’s the sweet creaminess of the ice cream, the tangy crunch of the crispy onions, the rich intensity of the pea soup. I take another slurp and the flavours intensify, seasoned by notes of bitterness and sweetness from the beetroot, carrot and red cabbage foams. I don’t want this dish to end. It’s a masterpiece. A Michael O’Hare masterpiece.

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A veggie in Fazenda?

“Your girlfriend’s a veggie? Unlucky, mate… How do you manage that? Does she make you eat veggie food too? Or do you have to eat separately? AND WHAT ABOUT BACON?!”

SIGH. Forget the prospect of being force-fed tofu and lectured on animal cruelty; this is what you should fear about dating a vegetarian. Because apparently it’s not love, respect and trust that a successful relationship rests on; it’s the compatibility of a couple’s attitude to eating meat.

But I’ve got a secret to share, and it’s a big one. Dating a vegetarian is not hard. Seriously. Sure, we don’t want to eat dead animals, but most of us really don’t care if our partners do. And honestly, that’s all there is to it. I’ve been in a carnivore-veggie relationship for nearly six years now, and we ‘manage’ just fine. Neither of us has tried to convert the other, meat and vegetables coexist peacefully in the same fridge, and, shock horror, we even share meals together. Mine just don’t include meat. And bacon? Well, what about bacon? He eats it, I don’t. It’s not rocket science, people.

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Cosmo, and the conundrum of the buffet restaurant

This post originally appeared on The Culture Vulture. 

It started with a pie…

Mum and Dad had taken us to Greece for our summer holiday. It was August, sometime in the late 90s, and it was bloody HOT. Energy zapped and tummies rumbling, we piled into the hotel’s air-conditioned buffet restaurant to escape the sear of the midday sun. Lunch was served on help-yourself silver platters, the contents of which incited inevitable grumbles from some.

“How the hell do you pronounce that, Clive? And WHAT is that?!” yelled the lady in front of me, picking at her peeling left shoulder and wrinkling her crimson nose.

“I don’t know June, looks a bit iffy to me. ‘Ere, just have some chips – safer than this foreign muck”.

They piled their plates high and sloped off, leaving me to assess the situation. There were the remains of the usual suspects – pasta, pizza and the few paltry chips left after Clive and June’s obliteration, but there was also a pie. There was something about this pie. Maybe it was the strange name, maybe it was the fact that nobody had touched it, but I had to try this pie. I served myself a slice, hurried back to our table, and took a bite. And that was it. A crisp, flaky wrapper of filo encased a filling so sensational that my mouth instantly waters every time I think about it. Salty feta on the brink of melting was entwined with irony spinach, imbued with the distinctive tang of fresh dill. Simple, but utterly magical; I’d never tasted anything like it and 20 years later, Spanakopita remains one of my favourite ever meals.

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Le Gavroche

A very belated review of dinner at the magnificent Le Gavroche to celebrate my Dad’s 60th birthday! Disclaimer: this is a LONG restaurant review. But it’s Le Gavroche, so 800 words just wouldn’t do….

The black cab made a right off Park Lane, turning onto Upper Brook Street where a pristine row of townhouses stood to attention, their façades adorned with blooming bouquets dappled with magentas and whites. Immaculate wrought iron railings guarded each building, overlooking the lean trees that lined the pavement.

Upper Brook Street

Number 43 came into view, and the taxi slowed to a stop. An elegant awning sheltered a mahogany door, through which two figures bedecked in black and white uniforms could be made out.  Emblazoned above the door were two words: “Le Gavroche”.

Image credit: Le Gavroche

Image credit: Le Gavroche

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Sam’s Chop House

We knew it had to happen sometime. Our sunglasses and sandals have been packed away for another season, rendered useless by the incessant rain and darkness that’s now bookending our commutes.  Expressions are glum, sniffles are rife and we’re all moaning about the lampposts of Leeds that have suddenly been straddled by the silhouettes of looming festivity; impatiently waiting to be illuminated so that everyone can be under no allusion: winter is coming.

Yes, we’re all mourning the demise of our unnervingly glorious summer, but the advent of winter serves up solace in its most irresistible form – British comfort food. As we don our cosy jumpers and hibernate until March, picnics and barbecues are replaced with heaving plates of piping hot, consoling roast dinners, thick soups and wickedly indulgent puddings. It’s the comfort food that our little island is famous for, and there’s no better place to enjoy it than in one of the many quintessentially British establishments strewn across every village, town and city throughout the UK. As long as there’s a roaring fire thrown in. There’s got to be a roaring fire.

You’re probably thinking of your local pub now, right? Maybe you’re even in your local pub, pint in hand and left cheek burning by that obligatory roaring fire. Now there’s a thought… British comfort food is practically synonymous with our great local pubs, but they’re not the only place to seek refuge and fantastic comforting grub this Winter. Even after nine Leeds winters, it seems I still haven’t uncovered everything our city has to offer, as I discovered this week when Leeds-List invited me* to enjoy an evening at Sam’s Chop House in the City Centre.

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The Soul Kitchen at The Wardrobe

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it, us Leeds folk are a lucky lot. Our city is strewn with a vast array of fine establishments, and frankly, we’re spoilt for choice. I know, I know – poor us. Driven by this variety of choice, everyone seems to have an opinion on ‘the place to go’ for every possible food and entertainment niche, and I’m definitely no different.

Want exceptional coffee? La Bottega Milanese is your place. Cheese fiend? Look no further than Homage2Fromage, who will sate all of your dairy desires.  The best Turkish food in the city? My beloved Ephesus can’t be beaten.  And if you’re in the city centre and hankering for live music of the soulful variety, those in the know would always make The Wardrobe their first stop.

A shining beacon of Leeds’ music scene, The Wardrobe has earned a solid reputation as one of our city’s most exciting music venues. A champion of eclectic soul music, it’s a musical mecca that, like Brudenell Social Club in Hyde Park, has become the place to go for the quality gigs performed in its atmospheric, underground lair. And with a very well-stocked Brooklyn-esque bar blasting an equally stellar playlist, its reputation as one of the best venues in Leeds is unquestionable.

But is it somewhere you’d go to eat?

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Sunday Lunch at the Talbot Hotel, Malton

Destination: Malton

A stately, gleaming white manor rises formidably from the main road serving Malton from York. Settled on a hill overlooking North Yorkshire’s Howardian Hills, a mélange of green fields dappled with bales of hay unfold just beyond its immaculately landscaped gardens. A wall separates its sandy gravelled entrance from the main road, bordered by a manicured flurry of purples, greens and yellows. Pristinely-kept beds of lavender fringe the base of its majestic façade, flanking a doorway above which two words are emblazoned in polished gold lettering. Talbot Hotel.

Talbot Hotel, Malton

The allure of its famous Executive Chef, James Martin, may entice punters to the Talbot Hotel, but it’s its own grandeur that makes an unforgettable first impression. A grade II* listed building situated in sublime surroundings, the Talbot Hotel was built as a hunting lodge in the 1700s, before trading as an inn from 1740 onwards. After reportedly falling into a state of decline, it was taken over by The Fitzwilliam Estate in 2011, which refurbished it to the tune of £4million, restoring it to its former glory and re-imagining it as a foodie destination with James Martin at the helm.

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The ‘best restaurant in Leeds’?

This post originally appeared on The Culture Vulture blog.

Everyone has an opinion on what the best restaurant in their local area is. I’m sure that we’ve all passed on a glowing recommendation for the ‘best Italian restaurant’, extolled the virtues of the ‘best Indian restaurant’, or enthusiastically tweeted about the ‘best Chinese restaurant catering for small children in a square mile of Roundhay Park’. Ok, that last one may be a step too far, but you get the point.

Touted around far too often, ‘best’ can be a problematic description. As @philkirby eloquently put in his recent article ‘Why would anyone say that Leeds was the “best city”?’, best can be a divisive term that can aggravate anyone whose idea of ‘best’ differs from the one proffered. It’s also a highly subjective term, which in turn makes it a highly contested term which can have no crowned winner. How can one restaurant be termed ‘the best’ when there are so many restaurants sharing the same glowing accolades from their customers?

So why, you may ask, have I written a post entitled ‘ The best restaurant in Leeds?’?

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Sticky Walnut

Some meals were made to be shared. They’re the meals that are so damn good, they’re instantly elevated to pedestal status in your dining out memories, the meals after which you find yourself uncontrollably extolling their virtues to anyone who’ll listen. The meals where you feel compelled to ask for a menu so that you can take it home and frame it… (Or is that just me?)

A small restaurant just outside Chester with a big reputation, Sticky Walnut was DEFINITELY one of those meals. A long-awaited visit owing to years of hype from one of my best friends and her family (and most trusted connoisseurs of fine food, no less), my expectations were very high. As our taxi pulled up outside the restaurant, I was instantly charmed. For a restaurant so steeped in hype and admiration, the Sticky Walnut is surprisingly low key. Occupying an unassuming yet inviting spot amongst a row of terraces in the village of Hoole, it’s perfected laid-back chic to a tee, without a hint of white linen in sight. Cute and cosy, it’s more akin to dining at a friend’s house than a fancy restaurant. A very nice house at that, mind.

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