God's own country: How one restaurant is changing the face of food in York
While it was hardly a gastronomic backwater to start with, one restaurant is leading York's foodie revolution. Ibrahim Salha visits Roots – and much else besides – in a weekend trip to the historic city
There’s nothing quite like a “foodie" revolution to galvanise people. Those words will probably either fill you with joy – the prospect of new places to eat, and dishes to Instagram! – or it will make your skin crawl, as the word “foodie” tends to do.
Much like “hipster”, no one likes to admit they are one, let alone be labelled as such. But if you are a gourmand, a gastronome, or a "foodie", then you could do a lot worse than exploring what York has to offer.
York has been undergoing one of those aforementioned “food revolutions”, albeit slightly quietly.
This has always been a city that knows the delights of a good dinner, but the revolution part comes in when you realise some of the young chefs here have started attracting national and international attention. Leading the way is Tommy Banks, the chef behind newly-opened Roots restaurant – and cookbook of the same name – which is one of my main reasons for visiting, and where we enjoyed a fantastic lunch on a recent 48-hour trip to the city.
We start, however, with a stalwart in the opulent and unmissable Middlethorpe Hall Hotel. This country house thoroughly deserves the tag “grand’”– it’s a stunning and imposing venue, from the main building all the way to the offshoot suites by the courtyard, which are closer to houses than mere rooms.
We’re staying in one of those courtyard suites, which proves to be generously spacious and very cosy, which is especially welcome as our visit falls in the middle of winter. If you’re looking for a modern hotel this probably isn’t the place for you – there isn’t an iPad to check in on or an Amazon Echo to take care of your every need. Instead, the accommodating staff are there to take care of you, in a nod to proper service. It’s all the better for it, if you ask me.
The rooms themselves are also kitted out in what you might call a “traditional” English way, or at least how foreign tourists might imagine, like something out of a Richard Curtis movie. We’re presented with homemade shortbread on arrival (superb) and asked if we’d like a wake-up call, newspaper and tea or coffee brought over. Yes to all three. Be sure to visit the spa during your stay, which includes a decent-sized pool, steam room and sauna. You can also book yourself in to one of a number of treatments, including a well-priced relaxing massage.
Dinner is tweezer and foam territory, granted, but it’s also just supremely delicious food, sourced locally and cooked to highlight the quality of the ingredients. I order off the seasonal menu, which proves good value at £45 for three courses. The highlight, it surprises me to say, is a deeply rich and satisfying chestnut velouté, given texture and zing from the pickled apple and madeira jelly hiding beneath the frothy surface.
The following morning we have breakfast in the same dining room of the hotel and I opt for the full Yorkshire breakfast, fried bread and all, which is a superb (if unnecessary after such an indulgent dinner) way to start the day.
From there we make the short drive into York’s city centre and opt for something a bit lighter. Everyone knows about Betty’s. Locals know it, tourists know it, my mum who hasn’t ever stepped foot in York knows about it and asked me beforehand if I’d be going. It would be remiss not to include Betty’s in this piece, no matter how obvious it may seem – it’s still the choice for a proper afternoon tea.
After walking around York’s Shambles and dipping into a few shops we make our way to the original House of the Trembling Madness (their second, roomier location, which is just round the corner is also worth a visit).
Tonight we’re staying at Colton Haggs Farm bed and breakfast, about as far away as you can get from the grandeur of Middlethorpe Hall, but no less lovely. A quick tour around the farm to digest and from there it’s time for a visit to Miller’s in Haxby – voted the UK’s best fish and chips as of 2018. Obviously, with this sort of crown, they’re under newly-acquired national scrutiny, but this is clearly a restaurant for locals. It’s also very much a family restaurant, having been passed down a few generations of Millers; even today, it’s a father and son operation in the kitchen.
Aside from the friendly welcome you get when you walk in, the first thing you notice is the smell of beef fat frying. That’s one of the things that make their fish and chips so good, of course, but it’s also the attention to detail as well as the quality of the ingredients. Miller’s uses only line-caught Leinebris haddock from Norway, and the firm white flesh is as good as any fish you’re likely to find in any seafood restaurant. The twice-cooked chips, too, show a deft touch at the frier – and, even better, they’re unlimited if you eat in.
By the way, how many fish and chip shops – and that’s what they want to be called here, rather than what they term the pejorative “chippy” – do you know with a slick social media presence? A YouTube channel that produces videos with Chef’s Table-style sweeping slo-mo shots of salt being dusted over fish fillets, no less. Though traditional, this fish and chip shop is very much in 2019. They’re also in the business of future-proofing, using only biodegradable takeaway boxes and cutlery, as well as ensuring they’re only bringing in sustainable fish. A must-visit if you’re in York and quite possibly the best fish and chips you’re ever likely to have.
To finish, we’re finally at the beautiful and airy dining room of Roots. Do you know when you walk into a restaurant and you can just tell that everyone (front of house, kitchen and diners) are excited to be there? That’s the feeling you get when you step in here. It might sound trite but there is a buzz about this room that you rarely find. Obviously I’m saying this with the benefit of hindsight as I know now that the food… well, it’s quite brilliant.
You can opt for their version of the tasting menu, the Roots Feast, at £55 per person, if you want to try a wide range of dishes or you can order à la carte. We choose to go for the latter and are advised to pick a few dishes from each part of the menu. It’s likely that the dishes we enjoyed won’t entirely be available on your visit, as Roots operates by "season", changing every few months, in a similar vein to Noma in Copenhagen. In fact, there’s a lot here that reminds me of Noma, from the concepts behind the menus to the affinity for preserving.
From the smaller plates we enjoy the smoked eel doughnuts and the lamb bao, which was perked up by the fermented turnip and dressed similarly to a banh mi. The Crapaudine beetroot, which has become something of a signature dish for Banks, is also fantastic, both visually and in taste. The beetroot is cooked slowly in beef fat and topped with smoked cod’s roe and horseradish goat’s cheese, as well as pickled beetroot discs. It’s complex, meaty and one of the best bites of food we encounter in the city.
The larger plates are slightly less interesting but no less delicious, particularly the smoked duck, accompanied by the slickest and fruitiest damson sauce I’ve tried. The skin of the duck is as crispy as pork crackling and elevates the dish from good to very good.
The highlight of the meal, however, comes with dessert and the can’t miss, book-a-train-to-York-right-now greatness that is the carrot and chicory root tiramisu. It is to tiramisu what Notting Hill is to romcoms. It’s exceptional. Picture this, in order from top to bottom: toasted rye cream, carrot sorbet, candied carrots, chicory root crumble, rye shortbread. And at the bottom of all of that is a caramel made from carrot juice and a touch of butter. It’s a wonderful balance of fruitiness, sweetness and it’s all incredibly comforting. A must order and the highlight of an exceptional meal.
There’s only so much you can eat in 48 hours so this is by no means a comprehensive selection of everything York has to offer, and there are certainly restaurants we couldn’t include in this piece such as the highly-rated Skosh. There are also York originals like the Yorkshire pudding wrap/burrito, along with numerous bakeries and food specialists centred around the Shambles. To that I say: all the more reason to keep coming back.