Way back in October 2017, Ben turned 30. Even though he’s only 31 now, that seems a lifetime ago – we’re now married with a baby! But as a gift for his birthday, my parents got him a voucher for the Black Swan at Oldstead – our local Michelin Star restaurant!
One thing to know about us is that we’re massive foodies. Ben always has been – when I met him, he was obsessed with celebrity chefs and was starting to build his cookbook collection which now numbers close to 200 – and it’s him that’s taught me to love good food. So to us, this voucher was like winning the lottery.
Oldstead is a tiny village in North Yorkshire. We feel super lucky to have a beautiful village like this with a Michelin restaurant so close to us – in fact, it’s just 5 miles down the road, which is really saying something in rural North Yorkshire! And rural Yorkshire describes the route to the Black Swan at Oldstead very well. You approach the village either via farm track, through the ancient walls of Byland Abbey (see some photos of this approach here, and more to come in my next post actually!), or down a country lane through Kilburn, another gorgeous North Yorkshire village. The pub itself is in a 16th century cottage, sat beneath beautiful blossom trees. We used to visit this pub back when I was at school when it was a “normal” pub before Tommy Banks became the head chef, so it was strange to go back to see it again with a completely different atmosphere.
What’s so special about the Black Swan at Oldstead is that it won Two AA Rosettes and AA Pub of the Year in England in 2010, and was awarded a Michelin Star in 2012 (making Tommy Banks, at 24, the youngest chef to have a Michelin Star), Four AA Rosettes in 2016, and finally it was named the Best Restaurant in the World by Trip Advisor in 2017. That’s quite a collection of accolades!
We booked our meal at the Black Swan at lunch time on a Saturday. We were first welcomed into the bar where we could choose a table to sit at while we enjoyed our drinks and perused the tasting menu. This was delivered to us in the above sealed envelope which was a brilliant touch that got the whole experience off to an excellent start. The menu had 13 courses, many of which were described very cryptically – we were definitely wondering what we had to come with “Chicory and Potato” amongst the dessert dishes!
I chose a non-alcoholic drink from the menu so as not to interfere with breastfeeding: the From Tusk ’til Dawn, which was a crisp rhubarb iced tea; and Ben had a gluten free IPA called Fantasma from Magic Rock Brewing in Huddersfield which he says didn’t taste any different from a normal IPA, despite being gluten free. In fact, he says it was a very good IPA, high praise from him, and he had another later. He also tried a wheat beer called Slocken Hefeweizen which is a collaboration brew between the Black Swan and local brewery Bad Seed which is based in Malton. He didn’t enjoy this one as much as the Fantasma, but we really loved the fact that they create collaboration beers like this.
The decor in the bar is very stereotypically Yorkshire pub, but slightly more polished than you might find in a proper pub – lots of exposed stone, hard wood floors, wooden tables and chairs. Upstairs, where you’re served the majority of the meal, is decorated very differently: sleek, more modern and more minimalistic, but with elements to remind you of the fresh produce that’s created on site in the pub’s own kitchen gardens: big demijohns of their own sloe gins; pear ornaments on the tables. What I really loved was the simple but beautiful vases of what I believe were forced rhubarb dotted around the bar which echoed dishes on the menu and the drinks they served. Before heading upstairs for the full meal, we were served the first course in the bar, described simply as “Jerusalem Artichoke”.
While this dish doesn’t look like much on a plate, it really packed a punch and got our appetites really going for the rest of the meal. We weren’t expecting the crisp shell of the artichoke underneath which had been salt baked and fried, then filled with a tangy and rich cheese custard and topped with tiny flakes of pickled artichoke, sprinkled with a roasted shallot and yeast powder. It was delicious – a slight sourness and strong savoury hit that got your mouth watering for more.
At this point, we were shown to our table upstairs and served “Crab & Asparagus”. This was a layered dish that incorporated both the brown and white crab meat: layered over sliced asparagus was a buttermilk and crab hollandaise, with the sweet flaked white crab meat at the bottom. This dish also had a beautiful hint of sour flavours that was well balanced with the sweet and smooth, and there was just enough of it to leave you wanting more. I’m not ashamed to say I was attempting to run my finger around the bottom (which isn’t as deep as the crockery makes it look!) to get the last bits – Ben may or may not have been embarrassed by me!
Can I just point out here as well just how gorgeous the crockery is? They beautifully complemented each dish that was served on or in them but were gorgeous in themselves too. From what I can see on their Instagram, these appear to have been designed and created by local potter, Jane the Potter, in York.
Next up was the “Langoustine with Caramelised Whey”. This beauty of a dish was served on a warm, smooth and rounded heavy stone that reminded me of a large pebble. The langoustine was topped with a caramelised grated cheese whey, dotted with gelled fir vinegar and sprinkled with fir salt, then served on a hand carved pine skewer.
I think this could potentially be my favourite of the savoury dishes we were served. The langoustine was perfectly cooked – it was tender and very sweet – and the savoury bite of the whey on the top perfectly balanced that. I could have eaten several more of these!
At this point, there was a break between the “starter” dishes and the “mains” – while they’re not really separated, the sourdough bread and sour butter provides a slight interval before you dive into the next courses. The sourdough starter has a long fermentation, giving you a loaf that has a wonderfully deep flavour and a crisp but chewy crust. Accompanied by sour butter that’s rich and smooth, this is another course that makes your mouth water for more.
We noticed that a lot of the dishes we were served had that background flavour of sour which was very interesting and delicious, leaving you wanting more. It seemed to be a theme throughout, and reading Tommy Banks’ Roots cookbook, it makes sense that this flavour runs throughout as part of the “Hunger Gap” season, as he describes January to May – the time where crops aren’t quite so prolific.
Next up was the dish I’d been a bit wary of when reading through the menu: Raw Oldstead Deer. I’m a huge fan of venison, but I’d never before had it raw. In fact, I’ve never been brave enough even to try steak tartare! Nevertheless, I was willing to give this a go and I was very pleasantly surprised.
The meat itself was finely diced and so tender, seasoned with a smoky, tangy and slightly spicy (in terms of chilli) dressing mixed with a slow cooked egg yolk. It was topped with sweet and sharp pickled onions, a crunchy wild garlic crisp and the beautiful heart-shaped wood sorrel leaves. We really loved the use of locally foraged leaves in this dish which not only look good but are punchy in flavour.
Next up was another seafood dish, and having said the langoustine might have been my favourite of the savoury ones, this one is actually vying very closely for that top position! This was the Scallop with Razor Clams and Rhubarb. Scallops are one of my favourite things ever – in fact, we cooked them on the day after our wedding as a first meal at home as husband and wife! – and I’ve had razor clams abroad a couple of times and adored them, so I was very excited about this. I was right to be so excited: the scallops were, of course, perfectly cooked, with a bouncy tender interior and slightly caramelised on the outside. They were served in a smoked butter sauce with tiny pieces of jerusalem artichoke, sweet onions, rhubarb and sliced razor clams. I was definitely running my finger around the inside of this bowl again!
The rhubarb flowers and leaves aren’t put to waste though; these are the ones I mentioned above that are put to good use decorating the restaurant! This is one amazing feature of the Black Swan’s menu: they use all the parts of the plants they grow on site and local animals where they can, meaning that very little goes to waste – especially important during that Hunger Gap season I mentioned before!
Our final fish course was the Monkfish with Fermented Celeriac. Monkfish is a favourite of foodies and it’s easy to see why when it’s cooked this well. It’s a firm, meaty fish that works well with big flavours. Here it was roasted and paired with a fermented celeriac and creme fraiche sauce that was, again, delightfully sour against the rich fish and trumpet mushrooms in the bottom of the bowl. The dish is dressed with the oil remaining from cooking the mushrooms to keep that strong, earthy flavour throughout.
I just want to quickly add that the vast majority of the produce used in the dishes at Oldstead is all local, such as the celeriac, grown in the gardens of the pub itself, fermented on site and used to create dishes like this one. This means it’s all highly seasonal and dependent on what’s available and good that month, week, or even day.
Between the rich monkfish and the meat course to come, we were served a lighter one: Crapaudine Beetroot cooked in Beef Fat, which is described as the Black Swan’s most famous dish as it completely encapsulates the ethos of the head chef, Tommy Banks. The bottom layer is beetroot cooked almost like steak: in flavourful beef dripping, but very slowly so it becomes smoky, sweet and rich, almost like meat. It was topped with dots of a horseradish goat’s curd, which brought that sour element that ran throughout the menu, and a smoked cod roe emulsion for a punch of savoury flavouring. Finally, it’s decorated with slices of pickled beetroot and crisp linseed crackers. This dish was so perfectly balanced with rich, deep flavours alongside a hit from the vinegary pickled beetroot, and had wonderful textures with the crunchy seed crisps and soft slow cooked beetroot, what more could you want?
Then was the Aged Sirloin with Onion and Lovage. As you’d expect, the meat was so very tender and cooked to perfection. This comes from a local butcher, R&J – one we know well through the bakery! It was served alongside a black garlic puree, a lovage puree, and a rich, sweet and strong caramelised onion puree. The black garlic pairs beautifully with the meat, the rich caramelised flavours on both complementing each other perfectly – this was my favourite of the three alongside it, but I enjoyed tasting each with the meat separately, then mixing the three flavours together on a fork too.
Alongside this plate, we were served a suet dumpling with, I believe, the meat and marrow served in the middle. This was delicious, but at this point, I was so full of savoury food that it was just a little too heavy for me and I couldn’t quite finish it.
Speaking of locally grown ingredients, the black garlic is another staple of the Black Swan’s cuisine, grown in their own gardens and slowly fermented in a dedicated room on site and made into this wonderfully rich paste that’s both sweet and savoury at the same time. They actually trialled premium Japanese black garlic and found their own to be “head and shoulders” above the rest, as Tommy Banks describes in his Roots book, so stuck with creating their own!
And finally, we reached the desserts – at this point, I was definitely feeling full of savoury food! We’d spotted this dish going out to other tables and had been trying to figure out what it was – it was intriguing! It turned out to be the “Rhubarb and Clotted Cream”, but not as simple as it sounds. In fact, this was a fun dish: an ice cream sandwich.
Between two buckwheat tuille biscuits were layers of sharp rhubarb ice cream and smooth clotted cream ice cream. This was topped with a rosemary cream, which, strange as it sounds, was delicious. The waitress explained to us that when served like this, it tasted almost like ginger – spicy and fresh – and it was true, it really did! This flavour, of course, pairs classically with rhubarb, but made for something a little different when you remembered it was rosemary. I also loved the way this was served on what looked like sand – reminiscent of the seaside but were seemingly little seed husks.
I just need to add that I’m still having cravings (no, not pregnant again, it was just amazing!) for this dish – it was SO good.
So I think this dish, Hay and Topaz Apples, may just be my favourite on the whole menu. The Topaz apples were juiced with skins on and turned using liquid nitrogen into this light and zingy pale pink granita, which was just what I was craving at this point after the rich savoury flavours of the main dishes. It sat alongside shards of brown sugar meringue atop a hay mousse – one of the most interesting flavours we tried! I know a lot of people might not be interested in a toasted hay flavoured cream mixed with condensed milk, but this was rich and nutty – it really did taste like the smell of hay! For me, this dish was so wonderful as it was a taste of childhood – I used to spend a lot of time around horses and the flavour of the hay alongside the apples we used to feed to our horses just tasted so nostalgic. It was a surreal experience but one I thoroughly enjoyed!
Then came a dish that had bamboozled us on the menu amongst the puddings: Chicory and Potato. But don’t worry, it’s not like it sounds! Chicory, when roasted until very dark brown, has a bitter coffee like flavour. Here the chicory root has been made into an ice cream and crumble which is surrounded by a velvety potato custard made from Charlotte potatoes, and topped with a chicory caramel that’s poured on at the table.
Wow! This dish was most definitely a surprise as it was delicious! Ben says this was his favourite on the whole menu as it was such a good surprise, and we both adored the rich but light layers.
And just a quick note here on the service as I mentioned the caramel being served at the table. All the service was fantastic with highly knowledgeable waiters and waitresses who described each dish at the table and presented them with something of a flourish. The whole experience was a bit like being part of a performance just for your table, both understated to let them food stand for itself but showing off the fantastic ingredients and skilled techniques used to create the dishes.
And the final course! This was the Root Vegetable Toast which was served with creme fraiche. The toast itself is created from panettone recipe, packed with slowly cooked root vegetables such as carrot, parsnip and beetroot, which are infused and marinated in rum. The flavours in this were sweet and lightly balanced throughout, with a hint of Christmas spices from the panettone and a slight alcoholic punch. I really liked it paired with the creme fraiche to lighten the dish, whereas Ben preferred it to stand on its own.
So overall thoughts? What can I say other than it was fantastic. We enjoyed every single dish on the menu, and writing this post up my mouth is literally watering! The whole experience was brilliant, and were we to have the opportunity, I’d definitely visit again. In fact, I’m hoping to visit in another season so we can try a whole different set of flavours! Next stop though, Tommy Banks’ other restaurant Roots, based in York.