It’s a fair drive from Todmorden to Aysgarth. Always rewarding of course, even on a filthy February day, particularly when you can swing by the Keelham Farm Shop in Skipton. Not sure how, but I managed to spend £15 on some Hesper Farm Icelandic-style Skyr Yoghurt and a couple of bits of brownie but recovered with a quick lunch at the newly scrubbed up White Lion at Cray (see Pub of the Week).
I’ve been trying to get to the Aysgarth Falls Hotel for a while – well, since chef Gavin Swift fetched up there. I’m a fan – I ate at the forgettable pub he used to work at (it was off the A1 somewhere in one of those rather bland villages) but the food wasn’t; crispy egg, wild mushrooms, truffle and tender stem broccoli if memory serves. Thing is, it was Gavin’s night off so I didn’t get to eat his food. The following day he tweets “had a Yorkshire Post reviewer in last night and I’m on holiday – hope it’s a decent one!” I’m curious because we never reveal ourselves. How did he know? “My missus has a sixth sense,” he tweets. “Impressive,” I respond. “Come back and try my specials,” says Gavin.
The rambling, ivy-clad old hotel is just above the raging falls. Inside though, it’s warm and welcoming, with stone flagged floors, wood burning stoves and some exposed brickwork, comfy leather chesterfields and vases of fresh flowers. The welcome is genuinely warm too, with friendly, chatty and capable staff both behind the pumps and in the restaurant. Well, strictly speaking, not the restaurant – it’s been taken over with a comedy night and we’re eating in the cosy room below the bar.
So, tonight’s menu is without the Swiftian touches; starters include scallops, grilled black pudding and pea puree and soup, quinoa salad with pomegranate, avocado, nuts and seeds and smoked salmon with capers and shallot. “Ooo,” says Lindsay, my co-diner, “a chance to eat quinoa for the first time!” And it’s a joy of a dish, full of colour and texture and all the flavours of spring. The salmon is exactly as described and rather delicately and prettily presented with those baby capers that look like commas. I’m generally not a fan of rapeseed oil but as the dressing on this dish it works well. What doesn’t work is two slices of dull French bread warmed up and brought on a slate.
There’s an interesting range of pan-Asian plates on the mains menu, and we’re tempted by Singapore noodles and a Thai green curry, but chicken “pie” wins. The quote marks are theirs, not mine, and it’s always a bit worrying. It’s either a pie or it’s not. Turns out it’s not – it’s the contents of one (poached chicken, pancetta, mushrooms, cream and tarragon) with a puff pastry “lid” sort of on one side. Just make a pie, eh? Not that the flavours aren’t good – they’re terrific in fact – but, you know, when you’re in the mood for pie...
Lindsay’s handmade butternut squash ravioli is a taste sensation and unctuous in a way that makes us let out a hiss of pleasure. The sage butter sauce and goat’s cheese piles on the richness. The accompanying veg deserve a mention too; lovely al dente greens and a very good pot of garden peas with piccalilli cream and ham. Again, some of them arrive on (blisteringly hot) roof tiles – stop it with the slates, stop it right now!
The ravioli, along with a leek and Wensleydale cheese “pie”, provides a decent veggie option which is good to see on a short-ish menu, which elsewhere sports fish and chips, sausage and mash and a 40 day dry aged steak with béarnaise sauce for £20. There are a couple of good looking puddings – we were too full to indulge – but next time it’s the apple crumble (cider poached apples, fudge, raisins) with honeycomb ice cream for me.
So in answer to your concerns, Chef; it was a good dinner and worth the schlep, but there’s no doubt that your deft touch was missed. All the flavours were present but a touch of subtlety was required to turn slightly clumsy plates into entirely memorable ones.
The following day I took the liberty, since the game was up, to ask Swift to give me an example of his specials. “Halibut, parsley root puree, parsley root cooked in beef fat, roast onions, onion ash and onion oil.” Now that sounds like a signature dish, reminiscent of that lunch I had all those years ago that stayed with me. Great food does that. So yes, I’ll be back!
• Aysgarth Falls Hotel, Aysgarth, Leyburn, DL8 3SR. 01969 663775, aysgarthfallshotel.com; dinner for two with a bottle of wine £54.95.
Drinks Selection 5/5