Short break - The Black Swan, Helmsley
PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 July 2016
© david chalmers 2009
Tony Greenway samples dinner, bed and breakfast at The Black Swan, Helmsley
The pretty market town of Helmsley, North Yorkshire is home to a fabulous arts centre, a beautiful walled garden and famously The Black Swan, a part Elizabethan part Georgian four-star boutique hotel which was a coaching inn back in the 1800s.
Like all swans, everything looks serene on the surface but underneath there’s plainly a lot of paddling going on. In the kitchen, for instance, I imagined new head chef Alan O’Kane working hard to provide an exquisite six-course tasting menu, one we sampled in the 3 AA-rosette Gallery restaurant managed by Antoine Bouquerel and his team. O’Kane has worked in London at The Savoy and The Capital and is well-known in his native North East for The Angel of Corbridge and Sidney’s at Tynemouth so our expectations were high. By the end of the evening, he hadn’t just met those expectations but vaulted over them.
First, we were served a range of ‘snacks’: an intensely beautiful white onion and 36-month-aged parmesan velouté; a house-smoked salmon and caviar toast, and a crunchy black truffle toasty. Best of all, though, was a moreish melting confit of lamb beignet with mint puree. Just perfect.
Then the first course: ham knuckle and foie gras with celeriac remoulade, caper jam, pease pudding and quail’s egg; deep flavours which, in less experienced hands, might be overwhelming but worked fantastically well with O’Kane in charge. After this we pushed out to sea with the different textures and flavours of meaty grey mullet, mussels and clams, fresh beans and sea herbs. Next came raw Scottish venison with burnt orange, smoked coconut, beetroot emulsion and egg yolk. This was a more challenging dish if you don’t like your meat very rare indeed and finely chopped (as opposed to carpaccio) but those O’Kane flavours were working their magic again. Were there more surprises up his sleeve?
Yes, actually, in the form of Gressingham duck, served with grilled corn, sweet potato, shitake, tosazu sea lettuce and peanut, just succulence on a plate. This was followed by a superbly smooth buffalo ricotta cheesecake, with a sharp, citrus calamansi, a zingy passion fruit curd (which woke up any remaining dormant tastebuds) and pistachio. The grand finale was a creamy bitter chocolate namelaka, spiced espresso cake and milk sorbet. Would we like coffee in the lounge? Yes please.
If you try the tasting menu yourself, an additional beverage pairing is available for each course (although we chose a crisp, fruity Alsace Riesling for all the main courses and a light Nivole Moscato d’Asti to go with dessert). David, our waiter, was new but already had the inside track on every dish, plainly knew his wines and provided first-class service throughout. But then that’s part of The Black Swan experience.
We weren’t the only ones to be impressed. While we drank our coffee in the lounge, and ate petits fours which were works of art, two other diners asked to meet O’Kane and practically gave him a round of applause when he emerged from the kitchen. They were still raving about him as we climbed the stairs to bed.
We stayed in a feature bedroom in the oldest part of the hotel overlooking the market square. It was large but cosy with a big en suite, pleasingly creaky floorboards, exposed beams and a king-size bed. The Black Swan isn’t faceless and corporate. It’s traditionally decorated but has charm and character and doesn’t skimp on the comfort. The surroundings might be straight out of the 18th century but the fixtures and fittings aren’t and include Wi-Fi, flat screen television and Sky sports channels.
Next morning, we were, surprisingly, ready for a big breakfast. I can never say no to a full Yorkshire breakfast, particularly when it includes the best local produce such as Waterford House Farm sausage, Wensleydale bacon and Doreen’s black pudding. And this one did. The Black Swan breakfast set us up for the day but our stay set us up for the weekend. We’ll be back.