Restaurant Review: The Harrogate Grille, Harrogate

BEING a big city boy more acquainted with the mean, back-to-back terraced streets of Leeds, the rather grander, spa-town versions are an eye-opener.

At least at first they are. After a bit all those large bay windows, panelled front doors flanked by bay trees and quaint stonework merge into one indistinctive mush.

It's all rather nice and everything but it's easy to get lost amid the middle-class maze.

At one point I tried to ask for directions to the grille from a pram-pushing posh mum (I'm sure it was Sam Cam).

After making the mistake of stepping in front of her, I nearly found myself kissing the underside of a Mamas and Papas buggy. Thankfully, after several rounds of "Excuse me" delivered at an increasingly loud volume, she heard me just before ploughing into my legs.

Then Sam almost rolled her eyes when I asked for The Balmoral Hotel. "It's there." she jestured towards a rather large building on the corner. "Oh" I said, feeling so deferential I practically curtsied. "Sorry."

To be fair you can easily miss the place. It slots right into the Stepford streets of this side of town.

So, when we stepped inside it was a rather pleasant surprise to see they'd tried to go for something a little different.

Nothing too loud. Not too moneyed. Not too Harrogate.

The grille has kept some the best features of the hotel which houses it, but they've added contemporary flourishes - dark wood furniture, exposed brickwork, caramel-coloured leather benches contrasting with deep blue walls.

The lighting is ambient and the artwork suitably smart. Someone with an eye for detail has clearly "boutiqued" the place.

But what sort of a place is it aiming to be? Fine dining maybe? Well, there are no white tablecloths, not too much fuss and no one rushing to greet us when we came through the door, which was a bit of a let down.

Once inside there was a guy behind the bar and a reception to the left which, I think, is for the hotel itself. Since the latter had two people sitting behind it, we went there.

"Oh, they'll sort you out." said the woman behind the desk pointing towards the dining area. When we walked into the space (which was completely empty) there was no "they", just the guy who emerged from behind the bar - and, pleasant though he was, he didn't imbue us with any sense that we were in the right place, or that he knew what he was doing.

Was he the maitre d'? The barman? Just a waiter? Was this the main restaurant or just a drinks area with a lot of tables?

"Is there a wine list?" I wondered, since he hadn't brought us one after quite a few minutes of being seated. One was promptly delivered.

Like I said, he was lovely, but there was a multitiude of uncertainties.

After receiving the lunch menus, the quandary continued. Nothing - from surroundings to service - suggested fine dining so far, more aspiring mid-market. And yet the food offering was quite special.

We chose from the December Celebration Menu which includes starters such as butternut squash soup and mushroom tartlet with soft eggs, sour cream and nutmeg. Delicious. But would it taste as good as it sounded?

My dining partner went for the fish starter - a great hunk of smoked salmon with beetroot salad (a few leaves plus cubes of the veg precisely placed around the main attraction) while I had a darling little venison keeper's pie with creamed parsnip, chestnut and Yorkshire spices.

And, yes, it did live up to the expectation. In fact it more than kept its promise.

My own main course was a tad disappointing - the butter roast turkey breast, which was unnecessarily bland (admittedly this isn't the tastiest of meats) but even the rich sauce it came in wasn't enough to counteract.

The smoked savoy cabbage was divine though, and the pheasant chipolatas something else. But altogether it was less than the sum of its parts.

My dining partner's choice, however, was spot on - the Longhorn Beef Wellington with truffled Madeira sauce. Now you're talking. It was an absolute belter of a dish.

And the whole shaboodle was finished off with a hot vanilla rice pudding with spiced plums and granola plus a great chocolate fondant with Christmas pudding flavour ice cream.

Ok, confession time: Oliver wasn't entirely unaware of the fact that The Harrogate Grille had received something of a boost recently, courtesy of a sprinkling of Michelin stardust.

New chef John Farrar started out at Leeds's Pool Court (one of the few restaurants in the city to hold a star rating) and went onto work with a string of top names such as Pierre Koffman, Tom Aiken and Tom Kitchin.

So the gourmet nature of the menu, and its excellent presentation, wasn't a complete shocker. The quality of what was delivered to our table was still a very pleasant surprise though - and not just because of the standard.

Lunch at The Harrogate Grille is, wait for it, an incredibly reasonable 19.50.

That's three wonderful courses and change from a 20. Even with coffees and a glass of wine our final bill, for two people, was just over 48, without a tip.

If we'd have had a bottle rather than just one glass of wine you'd be looking at something anywhere between 60 and 80, potentially.

But that's still pretty reasonable given that you'd be looking at a triple-figure bill if you were to sample cuisine like this elsewhere.

Plus, the portions were comparatively generous,it wasn't tiny parcels of this and meagre drizzles of the other. It's hearty, modern British food which ensured we left feeling full, not fleeced.

They have a really good thing going on here. Despite not packing them in (at least not on the day we visited) the restaurant has an edge of cosmopolitan cool which makes it stand out and the food is generally first rate and good value.

In fact, you'll face a challenge discovering any other restaurant delivering such a high level of cuisine at such low prices. It's a remarkable find - when you eventually find it.

FACTFILE

The Harrogate Grille at The Balmoral Hotel

16/18 Franklin Mount, Harrogate, HG1 5EJ

www.theharrogategrille.com

Opening Hours: Mon to Sat, Noon to 2.30pm and 6pm to 9.30pm.

Sundays, Noon to 4pm and 6pm to 9.30pm

STAR RATING

FOOD ****

VALUE *****

ATMOSPHERE ****

SERVICE ***