A Five-Star Meal
I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed such a perfectly presented meal as at the Pipe and Glass Inn, in South Dalton, East Yorkshire, a couple of weeks back, when I treated my mother for her 75th birthday. Her home town of Beverley, despite being such a popular gathering spot, is frustratingly short on truly great dining spots (though I’ve had one very good meal at Cerutti 2) and after I heard her let slip about this country inn, I checked out the web site in ample time to book before heading over for her birthday celebrations.
From the internet, everything about the Pipe and Glass seemed appealing, from the location (only five miles out of Beverley), to the gallery pictures, to the awards listed on the front page, to the sample menus which appeared to be full of local and fresh and presumably healthy ingredients. (I didn’t learn from any of this that chef James McKenzie had earned a Michelin star at his previous haunt, The Star in North Yorkshire, before heading out on his own and opening this gastropub in 2006 with his newly wedded wife Kate. He doesn’t even give his last name on the web site.) My only concern was that the vegetarian options, as too often the case in the UK, appeared to compensate for lack of meat with a surfeit of dairy, so I gave them a call (their e-mail address proved not to function) and asked about vegan options. I was assured that the chef would have no problems rustling something up for a vegan and I chose to make a booking there and then, the girl on the phone writing “vegan” against my name – I’ve learned from eating out in the UK (all too rarely) that good restaurants must be few and far between (or that those who frequent them have too much time and money) because they book up far in advance. I also asked if they could e-mail me the wine list, seeing as how it wasn’t available online.
I had to make a second call for the wine list, after which it arrived a couple of days later as a pdf, and I’m glad that I did, because if you are going to go out for those once-in-a-year meals, it’s that much nicer to study the choices beforehand, do a little research in your books, mull it over in your mind, make sure that you’re not getting mercilessly ripped off by the traditional 300% mark-up. The Pipe and Glass wine list is arranged by style, from “Floral, Zesty and Fruity” at the top of the whites to “Strong Bodied Block Buster” at the bottom of the reds, with many choices noted as bio-dynamic or organic. I was immediately pleased to see a Condrieu and a Meursault amongst the “mighty whites,” and the Chave Mon Coeur Côtes du Rhône and a Minervois in with the reds. But that’s me and my Francophilia: there are also plenty wines from Down Under, from North and South America, and all the usual European suspects, Austria and Portugal included. It’s an admirably comprehensive list given how short it is, and when I checked online, I was pleased to see that the restaurant’s mark-up was less than double retail. As it should be everywhere.
The drive was all of fifteen minutes and we found The Pipe and Glass glittering in the evening air at the entrance to South Dalton. There’s a small saloon bar off to the right of the entrance, where casual drinkers can choose from a number of hand-drawn cask ales. It would be a lovely place to visit just for that. The Inn maintains an old-fashioned English tradition of seating you in the lounge upon arrival, serving you with aperitifs and the menu, and taking your order before leading you to your table just before the appetizers are ready. They do this at one of the cheap restaurants in Beverley as well and I find it a bit of a con, like they want to cram in as many meals at the tables as possible. But here, in front of a roaring fire, the pause seemed appropriate. All the more so given that, the moment I walked in and stated my name, I was presented with my very own vegan menu.
Let me say that again. I was presented with a personal vegan menu for the evening. Vegetarians and vegans are accustomed to not studying menus when they take their parents out for dinner and even when, as in this case, they try to pre-assure themselves that they will have options, they’re used to being told “the chef will do you a vegetable plate” or, my fall-back (and it’s a good test of a chef), asking for fresh vegetables with pasta and hoping for the best. But here I was with personal choices created especially for me based on the current kitchen. I felt like royalty already – and that was before being told that the chef could adapt either starter as a main course, or that I could ask him to adapt a dish from the evening’s regular menu, and that would be fine too. I ordered my mother a glass of Chateau des Rontets Pouilly Fuisse, her favorite Burgundy appellation (I find it a little bold and oaky, but then you can’t drink Meursault everyday, unless you’re Tom Jones, who can and does), and an espresso for myself, and sat down, quite taken aback. Later, when I asked for a copy of my menu as a souvenir, the original was presented to me in a high-end envelope. There’s class, and then there’s class. And the Pipe and Inn was simply dripping with the stuff – and yet not in the sort that we associate with class wars. (Obviously such a restaurant doesn’t attract the hen parties and beer boys, but it’s not overtly snooty or patronizing.) This was class as in classic.
Once my mother decided to order fish for both courses, I could go ahead with my plans for the Condrieu (my mum trusts me on the wine front). Now, I can rarely afford Condrieu anymore in the States, given its exclusivity to being with, its increasing popularity, and the general malaise of the dollar against the Euro in recent years. That’s my way of saying that the £50 I figured on splurging for a Domaine Pierre Benetiere 2006 was no more than I would pay for it at retail in the States – assuming I could find it. Condrieu is, after all, what the wine list rightly described “the ultimate expression of” the Viognier grape. In fact, it could be very well argued – why don’t we just state it as fact? – that all other Viogniers, even the best from the southern Rhône and northern California, and I’ve tasted some beauties, are but pale imitations of a Condrieu.
The Domaine Pierre Benetiere 2006, from a producer I hadn’t heard of before, took a while to open up: in fact, I took it out of the ice bucket, because white wine served too cold freezes out the flavors. Its long legs indicated high alcohol (14%, not too unusual in a Condrieu), and the initial attack revealed more acidity than Viognier is known for, but the mouthfeel had that distinctly powerful yet perfumed feel and I knew we were on to a good thing. It was rich and long, with a delicately spicy finish, and a slight hollow kick in the mid-palate that’s a typical trademark of the grape. Over the next hour or two, as it opened up and found its place in the room (and its temperature too), it came truly alive. The perfume was honeyed, floral, and typically tropical; the mouthfeel was rich and endearing; the finish grew longer and longer. And yet, though my mother was right to notes its “bite,” there was a finesse and delicacy to it that’s difficult to achieve with young Viognier grown in a valley. It was, by any and all standards, just a beautiful wine and my only regret is that it will keep me pining for Condrieu though my budget will have me back on those Vins de Pays and Aussie Viogniers in no time.
What made it even better is that the wait staff left us alone to pour the wine ourselves. This has become a bug bear of mine recently, especially after an annoying experience with an otherwise lovely meal at a wonderful Catskills restaurant that deserves to stay nameless, where the waitress would not leave the wine bottle alone. Here’s my philosophy: I’m as capable of pouring my own wine as I am of putting a fork in my mouth; as capable of deciding how long it should stay in an ice bucket as I am of choosing when to eat my bread. And when, as on this evening, I’m driving, I like to know exactly how much I’m drinking. In an ideal world, wait staff would ask if you’d like them to pour the wine and follow your request; in an even better world, like at the Pipe and Glass, they just seem to sense your desire and leave you to it.
To the food. I went for the roasted truffled field mushroom with sautéed potatoes and beetroot salad. There were enough potatoes to carry to the next course and the mushroom seemed suspiciously like a portabello to me, but that’s not to criticize: it was arrayed beautifully and the yellow beetroot was just a delight. I could have easily taken this as a main course and been satisfied, but I had chosen to follow with the vegetable, pearl barley and tomato stew, with roast fennel and wild garlic, despite some reservations that a ton of tomato would jar with the wine. I needn’t have worried: the stew came in a hot pot, and the whole tomatoes were delicate, not overly acidic. The roast fennel and wild (roasted, I believe) garlic came in a separate dish and were soft and tender. Chefs often buckle under the pressure to deliver something unusual with vegan food and it’s all too easy for them to deliver a clash of ingredients that is neither, if you’ll excuse the metaphor, fish nor fowl. But McKenzie obviously enjoyed the challenge and prepared something that was healthy, that was hot, that was imaginative, and that was tasty. If it wasn’t the greatest main course I’ve ever had, that’s because I wasn’t looking for it. Food is about 50% of the experience in an ideal meal out (ambience, service and value split the remainder) and the main course only half of that at most. I really appreciated his effort.
My mother meanwhile, started with an extraordinarily odd dish: smoked salmon inside a quail’s egg inside a scotch egg, on bed of shredded “posh veg,” as she writes, “like a sort of birds’ nest appearance… I recall wondering how the egg had been cooked without disintegrating.” Her main course was a fish pie with flat parsley mash, with a crab and fennel salad alongside. She called it “exotic.” I would certainly allow that it was unusual. And if perhaps a tad rich, well, that’s British food for you.
We might have left it there – and maybe we should have, if only for the calorie count. But I’d run 13 miles that afternoon and I was still hungry, and when the hostess (who I suspected to be James’ wife Kate) apologized while delivering the dessert menu that the only thing they could offer me was sorbet, I perked up. What kind of sorbet? Apple. And marmalade. Now I’ve had many a sorbet over the years, but I’ve never had marmalade before. I went for a scoop of each. They both came with thin slivers of their fruits alongside, and with distinct morsels of apple and, yes, marmalade, within. And they were quite possibly the best sorbets I’ve tasted. My mother went for a “ginger-burned cream with poached rhubarb compote,” and if that sounds heavy, you should have seen the other items on the menu. It may have been more than she could have managed. I apologize for tempting her, but not for prolonging the meal. This was too nice an evening to rush.
On that subject, we were never hurried, and never seemed to be waiting. That could be down to the fact the restaurant was only half-full at best; I’d like to believe we’d have enjoyed equally relaxed but attentive service whether the place empty, or, as I suspect is the case at weekends judging by the walls full of glowing reviews, packed to the gills. Anyway, the bill only came when I asked for it, and it was presented in an unusual manner, sub-totaled by “starters,” “mains,” “afters,” “coffee,” “wine” and “bar.” This necessitates a degree of trust, but at the end of such a delicious and perfectly presented meal, I’m not given to poring over the small print. It wasn’t a cheap night out, given that we went the full three courses and a decent bottle, but the starters and mains (which included a side dish too) came to £43 for the two of us; throw in a single glass of wine each and you could convert this comfortably close to the $100 meal out that has sadly become a benchmark price in the States. Allow, also, that another recommended restaurant in the area, Winteringham Fields, charges £75 each for a 3-course prix-fixe, and the Pipe and Glass starts to look like a bargain.
We can’t eat like this every day. Nor should we. A proper meal out ought to be a proper meal out, something to remember, something to treasure. Something special for your mum’s 75 not out. Something to wax lyrical about on your web site when you get home. A meal where you want to keep the menu because they designed it just for you. Thanks, James and Kate. I can’t imagine any way in which you could have improved our evening. May you flourish.