Sunday 23 June 2013

The Box Tree, Ilkley

This 18th century farmhouse on the main road into Ilkley has been The Box Tree since 1962 when Malcolm Reid and Colin Long (often known simply as "the boys") opened what came to be one of the most important restaurants in the north of England, earning one Michelin star when Michelin re-started publication of its UK guide in 1974, and holding two stars from 1977 to 1986.

It went into a bit of a decline after Messrs Reid and Long moved on in 1986, though it kept one Michelin star until 1991.  It was then bought and pretty much resurrected by the formidable Madame Avis in 1992.  The Box Tree regained its Michelin star under Madame Avis' ownership in 1996, and held on to it until 2002, when she lost interest largely as a result of her husband being diagnosed with a terminal illness.  She leased (and subsequently sold) the Box Tree to the current owners, Simon and Rena Gueller in 2004, who regained the Michelin star in 2005, which it has held ever since.

I vaguely remember the Box Tree when the boys had it, and it's still very much recognisable as their restaurant, though fortunately the uncomfortable chairs seem to have gone: whenever we came across uncomfortable chairs, they were always said in our family to be "in the running for the Box Tree prize."  Little changed under Madame Avis, though it did start to feel increasingly dowdy and in parts in need of a deep clean.

We recently returned to the Box Tree after a couple of years absence, and were completely baffled as to why we don't go more often. The food was, throughout, completely faultless and simply a joy. Fairly classical, but light dishes, well-conceived and perfectly executed.

We started in the dark bar-lounge area with some canapés which, on the face of it, didn't look terribly inspiring: some thin crisp flatbreads and two bowls, one of a salmon mousse and the other of, I think, a red pepper mousse.  We were immediately struck by how well seasoned the mousses, particularly the salmon one were.  A very minor criticism might be that the flatbreads were a bit too thin and crisp for dipping into the mousses, as, without care, they tended to break under the weight.

The lounge/bar area
In contrast to the bar area, the two dining rooms are fresh, bright, smart rooms, with good art and quality knick knacks such as large Herend animals.  The butterflies painting, much coveted by Marco Pierre White, is however gone.  Despite the closeness to the busy road, the dining rooms are well insulated from traffic noise. Tables are classically set with pressed white cloths and good cutlery and glassware.

Immediately bread and butter show respectively the emphasis on flavour backed up by technique, and an attention to detail.
Excellent bread.

Butter rose
Presenting the butter as a rose doesn't improve its flavour of course, but it shows an attention to detail, precision and a good degree of classical skills.

The first dish to come out of the kitchen was an amuse bouche of homemade curd cheese with pickled vegetables.
Curd cheese and pickled vegetables
A nice start to a meal: light, fresh and extremely well balanced and certainly woke up the palate.

I started with a veal sweetbread, served with globe artichoke, morels and a truffled madeira sauce.
Glazed veal sweetbread with artichoke and madeira & truffle jus
A magnificent sweetbread, perfectly cooked, and undoubtedly one of the finest for some time. The madeira sauce was simply magnificent: good depth of flavour, yet still clean with all the truffle aromatics balanced perfectly and not dominating. The crisply fried artichoke slices were a method of preparation I don't recall coming across before, and together with the artichoke purée underneath the sweetbread, they worked brilliantly.  You could have stopped there and had a great dish, but the addition of the morels lifted it into excellence.

My main course was an equally magnificent pair of John Dory fillets, which came with truffled gnocchi, thin slices of turnip, caramelised shallots and a beurre noisette.
John Dory with truffled gnocchi, golden turnip, caramelised salsify purée
It goes without saying that the fish was excellent and perfectly cooked.  The gnocchi were unusually large and looked like they should have been a bit leaden, but somehow they weren't.  The salsify came both as a purée and as neatly turned pieces.  This really was a good dish.  If there were any criticism, it would be that it felt a little autumnal for a sunny, warm, early summer's day.  (That couldn't be said of our other main course: some excellent turbot with orange, fennel and coriander.)

Cheeses from a well-stocked trolley were, naturally, all in prime condition, and included a Tunworth, which is without doubt currently my favourite cheese. Unlike some places, there was no supplement for cheese.

I don't normally have chocolate desserts, finding them often too rich and heavy.  But the use of milk chocolate in a milk chocolate delice with strawberry, lemon and mint was a pleasant exception.
Milk chocolate delice, strawberry, lemon & mint, strawberry sorbet
In terms of writing up a report, rather like this whole post, this dish was rather boringly perfect, with a well tried combination of flavours and textures.

Good coffee came with a large box of - presumably homemade - chocolates, which all tasted how they were supposed to. Though the ritual of the box, and dispensing your choices with tongs seemed a little strained compared to the rest of the both the food and the service. Anyway, what are you meant to have? One? Two? One of each? (I had three.)

Service throughout was just the right balance of formal and friendly.  Before the meal, we had decided upon a shortlist of possible wines, but the maitre d' cum sommelier steered us away towards a white Bordeaux at half the price of our ideas, a 2007 Graves, Château Arzac Cuvée Lea, which was an excellent recommendation, working extremely well with all our dishes.

The Box Tree is not cheap, but then for a restaurant with this heritage, producing food of this quality, it should not be.  But neither did we leave with any sense that this had not been a very good value meal.

As hard as we tried, it really was impossible to fault at this meal.

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