Colonel Mustard had: Starter: Crispy quail’s egg, iberico ham, asparagus, asparagus purée; Main: Loin of venison with black pudding, Jerusalem artichoke, carrots and ginger; Dessert: Granny smith apple soufflé with calvados sauce
Last summer we visited Leeds’ first Michelin Starred restaurant a few weeks before it was awarded its star. Michael O’Hare’s vibrant, imaginative, bonkers The Man Behind the Curtain is an excitingly novel, contemporary urban environment with food to match. This week, for my birthday, we went to the other end of the spectrum with one of Yorkshire’s most established, traditional fine dining experiences.
The Box Tree was one of the first British restaurants to gain two Michelin stars way back in the 1970s (along with The Connaught) when it became a popular haunt for celebrities. It has had its ups and downs since then but in the last decade, under the ownership of former apprentice Marco Pierre White and the current chef Simon Gueller, some of its former reputation has been restored. Still, occupying a former 1960s tea room in an eighteenth-century sandstone building in conservative, traditional Ilkley, it could hardly be further from the very metropolitan contemporary vibe at The Man Behind the Curtain.
In décor and atmosphere it still feels a little bit like a combination of sixties tea room twee and seventies conservative smarmy. The walls are decorated with paintings of hunting scenes and display cases of ugly (but presumably hugely valuable floral print china), while around the time of our arrival a chummy regular was greeting the blazer-and-cravat clad staff by name. Fortunately, any thoughts that such elements might translate to a heavy, stodgy menu would be misplaced.
My starter was a little disappointing, an asparagus, ham and egg dish in which the crispy quail’s egg was definitely the star but the warm ingredients did not mesh well with the cold whole asparagus and the flavour of iberico ham was so hard to trace that it may as well have not been there at all, but the rest of the food was a delight. From the cod roe on a squid ink cracker canapés and butternut squash amuse-bouche to an impressively towering apple soufflé with calvados sauce complimented by a sweet white wine, there were plenty of appealing tried and tested flavours presented in an elegant and lightly modern fashion that belies that rather fusty surroundings.
It’s not going to win any awards for novelty, but The Box Tree knows what it does best: classical French influenced cooking using great Yorkshire produce. When it sticks to this, it excels, as in my main course that paired juicy loin of venison with black pudding to great effect.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: Generally, everything was broadly as expected. My risotto was a little salty (which the waiter warned us about, in a way that made it much more noticeable than if he hadn’t), my duck was very good and included a pleasing potato cylinder filled with confit duck, and my dessert was bright and vibrant and very tasty. My favourite bit, though, was probably the treasure chest of chocolates than came with the coffees: a little bit of old fashioned theatricality that was much more charming than the hunting prints and floral patterns. Equally charming was the fact they brought out a birthday card for Mustard, which was a lovely personal touch.
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