The Yorke Arms has earned plenty of plaudits down the years and Amanda Wragg finds that it’s still in brilliant form.
A frisson of fear ran through the hearts of the Yorke Arms faithful when Frances Atkins announced she was selling up last November, after a 21-year tenure; her husband Bill was retiring and she was flirting with the idea of a new venture. Multi-award-winning, loved by punters and critics alike, the Yorke in someone else’s hands felt like the end of an era. There was a collective sigh of relief when she struck a deal with the buyer, entrepreneur Jonathan Turner, and she’s remained at the pass with her loyal crew while he’s taken on the day-to-day running of the place, allowing her to concentrate on her beloved kitchen and herb and vegetable garden.
The Yorke closed for a time, while “major” renovations were undertaken. It was perfect as it was – what if it’s had a shocking makeover? It was with no small sense of anticipation that I keeled up on a perfect early summer’s evening, bowling along the narrow lane alongside Gouthwaite Reservoir, with all manner of bird life present and correct, the hawthorn hedges exploding like fireworks. The handsome, ivy-clad 18th century coaching inn glows in the late, low sun and tyres crunch satisfyingly on raked gravel.
We’re greeted with smiles at the door by a young man, smartly got up in a Harris Tweed waistcoat, and swept into the elegant, plump-setteed, fat-curtained lounge, where despite the balmy evening, a fire is blazing. Genial general manager John Tullet glides in with salutations and glasses of fine, chilled Gavi. He is as much a part of the fabric of the place as the burnished oak chests and the oil paintings on the walls. The consummate host, he’s urbane and warm, with an easy charm.
The graceful dining room, all antique furniture, starched white linen napery and tapestry walls, doesn’t seem to have changed at all. Turns out the thick end of the renovation money’s been spent on the bedrooms, underfloor heating and damp-proofing the entire place. There are two choices: eight and five courses, £105 and £75 respectively. We’re for the five-course which is heralded by three amuse-bouche, the first scallop and dill on rye, then feather-light baby beignets oozing creamy cheese with wafer-thin radish; my head was turned, I can’t remember the third. Warm sourdough with whipped wild garlic butter follows.
The main event is a sustained assault on the senses. A quenelle of lovage mousse, smashed peas and bacon crumb is a stunning combination of exuberant textures and hues. Hot spiced turbot is perfectly judged, and a quintessential Atkins dish: a chunk of pearly fish sits in a vivid puddle of turmeric reduction, a bit of heat coming through, and studded with tiny black (squid ink) croutons. It shimmers with flavour and is my dish of the night.
Truffled cauliflower, artichoke, asparagus is served in a heavy cream bowl with jagged edges – a pile of tiny, shaved veg, a sliver of truffle atop, sitting on a petal-shaped Parmesan foam, which is simply mind-blowing. Chin and cheek of veal is a rich, dark, flawless plate of food, with broad beans, tiny, earthy mushrooms, a sticky disk of veal stuffing and a massive sauce that found me indecorously plate-swiping with a finger.
Atkins’ backstory is colourful. After a brief spell waitressing at the Michelin-starred Box Tree restaurant in Ilkley, her home town, she became the first woman to get a job in the kitchen there, aged 17.
With her supportive second husband, Bill, she bought the Yorke Arms in 1997 and won her Michelin star in 2003 – the first female chef in the UK to win one, an award she’s held ever since.
The perfect coda to a faultless dinner, a soft mousse of rhubarb and strawberry sitting on a whisper-thin buckwheat biscuit: a fabulous finish, with a touch of bling in the gold leaf, edible flowers and tiny pink meringue kisses – just like those iced gems I loved as a kid, and a sweet moment of whimsy.
A new and welcome addition is a “brasserie” menu served in the comfortable space by the bar. Order as much or as little as you like from a very approachable list that includes the likes of Whitby crab & cured salmon, Beluga lentils, spring pulses & bitter leaves, warm duck, Mirin & Sake and fish & chips with tartare sauce.
Atkins has been back in the kitchen for a matter of days. However, it’s clear she’s not only hit the ground running, but the new arrangement has stoked her fire and she’s absolutely flying. Frances’ flavours are bold and beautifully balanced, presentation colourful and precise without being too artsy – she lets the ingredients do the talking. Like the very best chefs, she makes it looks easy, though you just know there’s a hell of a lot going on under the bonnet. The vibe is formal but friendly; there’s something perfectly poised about this place, and you’re made to feel special. Save up. You’ll have a night to remember for the rest of your life.
The Yorke Arms, Ramsgill-in-Nidderdale, Pateley Bridge, near Harrogate HG3 5RL. 01423 755243, www.yorke-arms.co.uk; open seven days a week with the brasserie menu, lunch and dinner. Fine dining, Tuesday evening to Saturday evening dinner. Lunch, Wednesday to Saturday.