Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A Taste Of Britain: York and North Yorkshire

Janet Street Porter and Brian Turner are travelling the length of Britain in praise of local produce and in search of a good eat or three. On Sunday lunchtime, they were in York and North Yorkshire. Home turf for me, and home turf for the pair of them - Janet lives in Nidderdale, and Brian is Yorkshire born and bred (and rather a Yorkshire stereotype). I can't imagine this pair of strong personalities getting on, but they seem amiable enough on camera.

They begin in York on a beautiful spring day. There is no better light in which to see our city. The banks of the walls aflame with daffodils, the blossom bursting in the Museum Gardens, and the river teeming with life. It's when we wake up from our long winter sleep and remember just how good it is to be here.

Spring in the Museum Gardens
City walls

Looking towards the site of Star Inn The City
Their only restaurant stop in York is Star Inn The City, which opened in the old pumping station by Lendal Bridge a couple of years ago. It's a sister restaurant to Andrew Pern's Star Inn at Harome, which has been known to possess a star of the Michelin variety from time to time. Though the only time we went there, many years ago now, we weren't quite sure why - it was the sort of place where the waiting staff forgot to bring you a wine list, the Yorkshire portions were enormous and sickly, and the overuse of edible flowers and black pudding did nothing but give me a migraine.

Nonetheless, we have been to Star Inn The City twice - once for my husband's 40th birthday breakfast, and once for dinner, when he changed jobs and was given a Star gift voucher as a leaving present. I don't think there's much you can say about Star Inn The City that Jay Rayner hasn't already but suffice to say, it's a very mixed bag. And it makes you cross. Because the prices are as high as the sky, but the food quality is - well, at best inconsistent, at worst inedible. When you have a young child, you don't get to go out much, so when you do get a baby-sitter and are going somewhere charging "special treat only" prices, you want the dogs bollocks and the cats pyjamas of an experience. And this you do not get. Instead you arrive and are told your table is not ready, but look, there's a nice bar over there charging extortionate rates for drinks you do not want to get you in the (bad) mood which will sour the rest of the evening. And then - when you are finally allowed into the main restaurant - there's the bread in the Yorkshire flat cap thing. And the stupid Yorkshire puns ("Ee-by-gum Madam!", "salad o't day"), and the exaggerated statements of food provenance ("Beverley reared duck breast"). Unlike Jay Rayner, I would have forgiven all that if they had just served me an amazing plate of grub for my money. But they didn't. The beetroot and goats' cheese starter was so-so, the Scarborough woof made me gag, and the gooseberry and elderflower rice pudding should have been avoided if only because the waitress had recommended it, which is usually a sure-fire sign that the chefs are trying to shift a job lot out the kitchen.

To be fair, the seafood dish that Andrew Pern cooks with Brian Turner does look delicious, and a far cry from anything we were served that overpriced night. Pern acknowledges that he does "cheffy" thing like piping puree so that he can put the prices up. Turner admires Pern's quirky sides. I guess humour is a very personal thing.

The Star Inn The City has a gorgeous riverside setting, and the dining room is undeniably lovely. York certainly needed something where it sits - it replaced the park toilets. But it's a waste of a fantastic opportunity. However, our daughter - developing expensive tastes at far too young an age - asked to go there for breakfast on her birthday last year, "just like Daddy did". We of course said no and served her her usual bowl of Cheerios. There are much better places to go in York (Melton's, Walmgate Ale House, Oxo's, The Whippet) that do what The Star is doing, with or without the quirks, that won't break the bank in the form of armed robbery, though will inevitably make a bit of a dent in your account.
Daughter with expensive tastes at Star Inn The City, December 2013

Mummy (taken by daughter) at Star Inn The City, December 2013

Then Janet and Brian move up towards Thirsk. They stand atop Sutton Bank, scene of many a caravan breakdown and my husband's first (and only) gliding lesson, when he spiralled above the famous White Horse that you can see for miles across the Vale of York. Janet then goes off to look at Mouseman furniture, which is loved the world over. My grandmother owns a Mouseman stool and a fruit bowl, and I suspect this will lead to inheritance fights in future years if she hasn't secured their future in her will. Brian heads off to a farm to look at pigs so cute that they would turn anyone vegetarian. Though a particularly friendly and gorgeous one plonks himself on Brian's foot and it seems to me that Brian is fighting a slight instinct to kick it right back off again.

Husband in glider taking off from the top of Sutton Bank, summer 2010
Janet and Brian convene at Ampleforth Abbey to consume cider and al fresco barbecued pork, which is - thankfully - pork rolled with apples and sage, and not barbecue sauce. If you haven't tried Ampleforth Abbey cider, do. It blows itself out of the bottle in a very excited fashion and then proceeds to blow your mind, slipping down like sweet fresh-pressed juice, but with disastrous consequences for your functioning. I do have to agree with Brian's question on the matter of monks brewing alcohol, "What's all that about, then?" As usual, the answer boils down to money.

I am worried the monks don't get enough to eat, as their chief cleans his plate at alarming speed. Andrew Pern says as he pokes his food, "Mm, you can really taste those herbs coming through" in a way which implies that Brian has choked his plate with sage. But I bet Brian hasn't charged Andrew what Andrew would charge us good folk of York to eat something similar.


  1. Yikes, doesn't sound great. Give me a good ol' pub meal any day.
    As for Ampleforth, I went there once because you're allowed to nosey round the grounds and some of the buildings (and it is very beautiful), or at least we thought you were allowed to nosey round, but the monks all looked terribly disapproving at the sight of a WOMAN looking round - and a heavily pregnant one at that.

    1. And I guess you couldn't drink any of their cider either if you pregnant... We have never been to the abbey though have passed close by numerous times. Your boys would probably like the Ryedale Model Railway Engineers down the road.