Buying and renovating a 17th-century building inside York’s city walls could not possibly come without a few surprises. Even so, to find a Roman road plus partial remains of a house in the cellar has to be something of a coup. The find also makes a visit to one of York’s newest restaurants exciting when you can nip down into the cellar for a quick gander at the Roman marvels, which bizarrely share their space with neat rows of white wines, soft drinks and bottled water for the bar upstairs.
The unusually named Rattle Owl restaurant is within a spit of Micklegate Bar and occupies the building that once was the much-loved Blake Head Bookshop and Vegetarian Cafe. The owner has so totally and utterly transformed the interior that I had to question whether this was once the home of the shop for which I had such a fondness. The decor is gorgeous and has that enviable quality of being carefully crafted to be tasteful without taking itself too seriously. I loved it. I was equally impressed with the staff, seemingly cracked from the same mould. It may have been lunchtime and quiet, so not exactly a challenging service for them, but they oozed a quiet confidence that I just know they would be the same on a busy Saturday night.
The menu is also lovely, a little sparing on choice (there are just nine options on the lunch a la carte but much more to go at in the evenings). A set menu, however, gives several more combinations and by merging the two between us, we managed to create a varied and exciting lunch.
First up, Haxby Bakery bread to munch on is always a good sign; the renowned bakery just north of York produces some of the best artisan bread in Yorkshire. Tiny slivers of salmon came cured in thyme and orange and artfully arranged on the plate with a malt loaf crisp, orange dressing, and a rouille which should have revealed more thyme but didn’t. Being lunchtime, we had decided to share the starter dish, but it was a little on the small side, so thank goodness for the chunky slabs of bread and butter.
Fresh fettuccine, Jerusalem artichoke, black truffle oil was sublime. Clean, clear, unfussy ingredients each with distinct, powerful qualities which when brought together was everything I could want from a dish. The portion size too was excellent for a lunch main.
The other main of a vegetable platter offered butternut squash and sage pastry, salt baked beetroot, cheese straws, Jerusalem artichoke veloute and more Haxby bread. The silky veloute was a big hit, especially good with a cheese straw dipped into it, but the rest didn’t quite live up to expectation. I am addicted to beetroot and order it whenever I can. Here it was just fine but lacking that thwack of sweetness which comes from the roasting. The chunks of non-descript squash were sandwiched between thin pastry sheets that somewhere en-route had lost the sage. I can’t even describe the arrangement on the plate as particularly interesting; it all looked a little discordant, and even the few salad leaves seemed to be no more than an afterthought. I was disappointed and still a little hungry, making me envious of another diner tucking into a hearty, substantial venison cottage pie on the next table. Onwards and upwards.
A liquorice rice pudding with puffed rice and a smidgen of blood orange marmalade was (despite my fear that this could so easily go horribly wrong) one of the best rice puddings I have eaten for years. The liquorice was so carefully balanced with the other ingredients that it took a few moments to kick in, but when it did, it was bang on and strangely not overwhelmed by the marmalade. They certainly pulled this one off and redeemed the earlier disappointment.
Overall, adding everything up, this is a cracking place and fills a distinct gap in the York restaurant scene. It is not in the easiest of locations, but Micklegate is definitely on the up and now even more so with the addition of this great place. I may have mourned Blakes but rest assured I am delighted by the Rattle Owl – which in case you wonder where the name comes from, has a charming story to it, but I will let you ask the staff when you hot foot it over there to eat.
The Rattle Owl, 104 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX, 01904 658658. Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 12-3pm; Saturday & Sunday: 12.30-3pm; Dinner: Wednesday to Saturday, 5.30pm-9.30pm. Lunch for two including two glasses of wine, £39.75.