The Box Tree in Ilkley has renewed focus after losing its star, and Elaine Lemm was wowed by the food under its new head chef.
The Box Tree and I go back a long, long way – too many years to mention here. It may not have had as dramatic an impact on me and my career as it did on Marco Pierre White, who famously cut his teeth there, but my first Box Tree meal in my late teens (thanks to a special offer from a magazine) opened this girl from Armley’s eyes.
My most frequent visits have been the years under Simon and Rena Gueller who, in 2004, took over the then ailing restaurant and nurtured it back to life and to national acclaim by gaining a Michelin Star just one year later. They had held onto the star ever since, that is until September last year. There has been speculation, discussion and conjecture as to why, but only Michelin knows the truth, and I don’t care why; I am more interested in what is happening now and going forward.
Simon has been away from the stove more or less for the past few years, but he is back, acknowledging the loss of the star has galvanised him to get back there. There’s a new head chef in the shape of Samira Effa, another considerable talent; a subtle refurb, under Rena’s direction, brightening the whole place with gorgeous new fabrics and decoration throughout without changing the much-loved cosiness. One foot in the door and there’s staff aplenty attending to our every need with expert service. I had forgotten just how lovely this place is.
The 7-Course Menu Gourmand (£85) will take you through the whole gamut of ability of Simon, Samira and the brigade in the kitchen. But the short, pleasing a la carte (£70 pp inc. dessert) pulls from the same dishes with choices down to four starters and mains.
An enviable wine list at the Box Tree is still a delight to read if overwhelming to choose from, but thanks to sommelier Didier (who I am happy to see is still here) an Austrian Zero GMT Orange wine is now firmly on my favourites list. This lively, fresh, minerally white gets the orange blush from the Muller Thurgau grape by spending three weeks on its skins followed by six months in stainless steel. It is a robust food white and kept me happy through the starter and main, standing up so well to the diverse ingredients on the plate.
There are the lovely extras that come with fine dining with tiny, perfectly formed “Amuses” to keep us just that while we try to choose our dinner. Maybe a galantine of chicken and duck liver, perhaps raviolo, artichoke, goat’s cheese, leek and Miso? Mains, possibly beef sirloin and cheek with barley, parsley, beer and smoked bone marrow or there are further choices from duck to turbot, butternut squash, curry, Panisse, Paneer and on and on.
We shared freshly baked sourdough slathered with a Marmite butter which I enjoyed so much I could have left right there and then. I’m happy I didn’t as next up was a textbook langoustine bisque with two fat, delicious langoustines in a creamy, sea-scented soup with fennel and cucumber. A gorgeous dark plate appeared too showing off chunks of mackerel, lightly pickled apple, celery and pearly blobs of grape puree, a genius combination for the oiliness of the fish.
There was rapture over a duck breast which had seen the rigours of brining, sous-viding and finishing to produce the “softest and tastiest duck ever”, he said. And he was more than happy with the leg meat, alliums and turnips too. An exemplary turbot with pillow-soft puree of celeriac, sea kale, a smatter of Avruga and squeaky fat mussels had the same rapture from my side.
The duck breast came head to head with a dessert of a classic rhubarb soufflé for best dish of the evening. A massive round of applause for whichever chef produced that plate of loveliness which I watched him eat with a smattering of envy though I was more than relishing my plate of artisan cheeses.
Seriously, whatever was going on at the Box Tree pre-September 2018, I have no idea. What is there now is nothing short of fabulous. Simon’s pioneering cooking has led many chefs on to greatness and wowed diners for years, and he has certainly not lost his touch at all. His food is accomplished, innovative and now even more exciting with what Samira is also bringing to the plate.
Clearly, you do not need a star to shine. The magic of this brilliant chef and his brigade, added to the warmth and professionalism that is Rena and the team front of house, ensure the Box Tree shines as bright as ever, if not even better.
The Box Tree Ilkley, 35-37 Church Street, Ilkley, LS29 9DR Tel: 01943 608484. Friday and Saturday lunch, 12-2pm, Sunday lunch, 12-3pm, Wednesday to Saturday night, 7-9.30pm.