There are few more exciting treats for a self-confessed foodie than learning you’re heading to Ilkley’s Michelin-starred restaurant The Box Tree for the evening.
It’s one of those nights where you have to pretend money isn’t an issue, as you nonchalantly drop £60-£75 a head on the food alone. But you are paying for a quality that you’re unlikely to sample often. And as we found in our debut visit, it’s not just a meal but an experience.
The Box Tree sits modestly, like a small quaint cottage, on Church Street where it has been a dining institution pretty much since it first opened as a tea room in 1962, winning two stars in 1977.
In fact, when she found out we were going, my mum declared she remembered going with her mum 40 years ago “and it was a big deal then”.
So to say we were excited was an understatement and it was all we could do not to turn up earlier than our 8pm booking.
Inside, The Box Tree matches its cottage-like exterior, with old-fashioned furniture, ornate armchairs and grand, gold-framed paintings on the wall in the ‘bar area’. A suited waiter swiftly took our coats and showed us towards a pair of cosy chairs where we were asked if we’d like some drinks.
We were glad we said yes when, not long after they arrived, a plate of six – three each – exquisite-looking canapes were presented – including a melt-in-your-mouth pink peppercorn macaroon, which had a hot peppery kick immediately softened by a cream cheese and chive filling. We tried to leave at least 10 seconds between devouring each one. It was in this room we were given the menus to browse, while soft jazz played in the background.
The music was welcome, as it took the edge off the otherwise virtually silent room we were sharing with a handful of other diners.
It is extremely formal and we would normally run a mile from such atmospheres, but it was different here – you could feel the fizz of excitement in the air.
We chose to eat from Menu Gourmand, the £75-a-head four-course taster menu, and ordered a bottle of the Albarino Terra De Asorei (£30).
A waiter then showed us to our seats, through one dining room, ducking under a low ceiling and into another small room which had varying sized circular tables. It was all very plush – thick carpet, high-backed cushioned chairs, crisp white tablecloths, candles glowing inside thin, domed china holders and a small bowl of flowers on each table.
Not long after our wine was poured, an amuse-bouche arrived of caramelised onion foam with a Guyere cheese straw. Served in a little coffee cup, we used a tiny teaspoon to greedily scoop up the foam and marvelled at the intense, creamy flavour given that it was half air. Our next course was a terrine of Yorkshire duck, with warm apricot chutney and pear puree, served with a brioche bun. The sweet chutney was presented in a round croquet which gave the dish a lovely crunch and, with the pear, was a delicious accompaniment to the earthy duck, which just fell apart. The fish course was incredible – in fact my husband, who never orders fish, decided it was probably his favourite. A sliver of succulent line-caught sea bass was served on top of tiny pieces of roast Jerusalem artichoke, which were sweet, rich, and caramelised. Despite being a mere smear on the plate, the leek puree was incredibly full of flavour and the confit tomatoes delivered a punchy hit.
It was only in between courses - when your attention was not on every morsel on the plate - that you could take in the surroundings. Apart from a slightly boozy table at one end, the atmosphere was almost as quiet as the bar area, so we had hushed conversations as we watched the staff glide in and out. Dishes were brought in on a tray and met by a waiter who then described each plate before placing them on the table.
One of the waiters had a sharp-looking implement which was used to quickly scrape the crumbs away from each table in between courses – a surprise when it first happened and a reminder of how out-of-the-norm we were.
Our sommelier was also swift to top up our wine and water after just a few sips and brought us a glass of red each – Vernissage (£9 a glass) – to accompany our next course of venison.
The Scottish loin of venison was beautifully pink in the middle and served on top of a sweet, braised red cabbage. Incredibly fine slices of potato were tightly packed together and baked to create what, to me, tasted like the ultimate chip - and was perfect at scooping up the rich, Cumberland sauce. Also scattered on the plate were pieces of chestnut, roasted sprout leaves and a morsel of pear, together with a parsnip puree which brought a creamy softness to the dish.
Before our final course, we were brought a palate cleanser of Champagne and cranberry foam in a little glass, at the base of which was a vivid green, refreshing cucumber sorbet.
Dessert was rhubarb crumble souffle, which was beautifully light and fluffy - swelling up about an inch above the bowl and skilfully coated with a sugary biscuity crunch. Very clever. All served with a cooling vanilla ice cream.
A coffee for my other half was served with handmade chocolates (£4.50) and rounded off a spectacular gastronomic evening.
Yes The Box Tree is one of the most expensive places to eat in Leeds, but food fans would not be disappointed if they had a special treat splurge. It is formal and a buzzing atmosphere it has not, but with dishes of this calibre, it seems wrong to focus your attention anywhere else.
The Box Tree
Address: 35-37 Church Street, Ilkley, West Yorkshire LS29 9DR
Tel: 01943 608484
Opening times: Friday, Saturday, Sunday lunch 12 – 2pm; Tuesday – Saturday Dinner 7 – 9.30pm