The West Park Hotel is a new addition to Harrogate. Amanda Wragg goes for a dinner and just a spot of people watching.
Alan Bennett’s priceless 1988 documentary Dinner at Noon set in the Crown Hotel in Harrogate is, in Bennett’s words, about ‘types’. He eavesdrops on guests, sipping champagne in the Brontë Room, addressing a meeting of the Environmental Health Officers in the Elgar Room, and indulging in that thing that Yorkshire folk do best – sitting in corners, gossiping and weighing other guests up, taking tea. Bennett’s parents did it, we all do it. I was doing it the other night in the shiny new West Park Hotel with a couple of chums, deconstructing fellow diners, making up the stories of their lives, over wine not tea.
We’ll never know what Bennett’s mum and dad would have made of the West Park, with its industrial, rather fierce décor, all teal blue studded leather high chairs, artfully rusted metal mobiles and clattery floor – it couldn’t be further from the floral carpeted Crown Hotel lobby – as it was then. It looks as though it might be uncomfortable though actually it’s not. We start off a bit awkwardly as the first table we’re sat at is directly opposite the front door, and the draft whistling in off the Stray is wicked. It’s an otherwise completely empty room so when the maitre d’ raises his eyebrows when we ask to move we raise ours too. In his charmingly quirky French/English he says: “But it’s a good table!” “For somebody, but not for us,” says Irene in a stage whisper. So move we do, round the corner to a cosy table perfect for spying.
Provenance Inns, run by Michael Ibbotson and Chris Blundell are rescued country pubs. They’ve done a grand job, scooping and scrubbing up half a dozen sorry old boozers in remote villages which would otherwise have gone to the dogs. Or the developers. The mothership is the much-garlanded Durham Ox in Crayke, the exemplar of how a rural pub should be. When Ibbotson told me a couple of years ago that they’d bought a crumbling Victorian building on the Stray and were planning to create a classy hotel, I thought he was a bit nuts, given we were in the teeth of a recession. Just goes to show how wrong I can be.
Unlike his pubs, Ibbotson has gone for hip for his ‘Boutique Destination’ hotel, with a zinc-topped bar, those caged filament lights and an industrial looking metal ceiling. There’s a fair amount of metal, it’s true to say, though the overall feel is softer than it sounds – the padded dark green leather banquette booths do something to absorb the sharp edges.
Nothing though can soften the price of some of the shots of whiskey in the lit (and padlocked) cabinet. At £30 a shot (the most expensive) it’s an indication of the quality of the clientele. We’re in Harrogate, after all. Anyway, the food. The menu ranges from burgers and bowls of mussels to venison and Dales lamb. They’ve one of those posh ‘Bertha’ grills too, so you can have a whole charcoal baked sea bass if the mood takes you. They’ll chuck a lobster on it too, if you’ve got the thick end of £25.
We start with baked Queenie scallops, mussels and from the specials sheet, salt beef and Sakura cress salad, which is delightful all round; colourful, delicate, textures working well and tasting good. I ask our sweetly attentive waiter what Sakura cress is. A look of panic passes across his face before he has a stab at it; ‘Er it’s like ordinary cress, but foreign’. Bless him. The mussels are in a good broth with tons of depth and flavour, but the scallops are dry, and crippled with too much garlic.
As our mains arrive it becomes clear there are two kitchens operating here. The burger is good enough, but lacks salt, so not a humdinger. Roast duck breast is a massive dish of food, the duck very nicely cooked, but it’s sitting on a huge mound of red cabbage and half a pan of caramelised onions – enough to over-face the greediest eater. I win again with my Dales lamb – I wasn’t asked how I wanted it but it arrived pink, just the way I like it – and the white bean and smoked garlic puree with borlotti bean dressing makes it one of the best plates of food I’ve had in a while and shows the kitchen skills off well, unlike Sarah’s clodhopping duck dish and Irene’s under-seasoned burger – see what I mean, two kitchens?
No hint of duality with puddings – a terrific sticky toffee sits in a puddle of sublime butterscotch sauce, and a shared orange and rosewater crème caramel with ginger syrup is a revelation.
We had a good night. We were warm and happy away from the draughty (and still empty as we left) front dining room. Service is good-natured and efficient, and whilst the food wasn’t altogether memorable it was good enough. Best fun though was checking out the well-heeled North Yorkshire glitterati and the young and beautiful of Harrogate. We spent some time trying to work out if that couple in the corner were father and daughter or boss and secretary. Ah, the latter, it turns out, as the evening progressed. Ma and Pa Bennett wouldn’t have have approved.
West Park Hotel, 19 West Park, Harrogate HG1 1BJ. 01423 524471, thewestparkhotel.com. Open Monday to Thursday, 8am to 12am; Friday and Saturday, 8am to 1am; Sunday, 8am to 12am.
DRINKS SELECTION 4/5