The Wensleydale Heifer
Em Marshall-Luck enjoys fine food in North Yorkshire
The Wensleydale Heifer is an outstanding hotel, bar and seafood restaurant nestling in the village of West Witton under the benevolent, albeit looming gaze of Penn Hill. There are various sections to the establishment – smart bars; snugs; more informal lounge type of areas; and the restaurant itself. This has tables dressed properly in white linen with real roses in very tall and elegant vases, colourful display plates, elegant tall wine and water glasses, and appropriate cutlery. A sheep theme runs through the whole establishment (slightly oddly, given its name; but perhaps not quite so incongruous when one bears in mind the fact that Wensleydale is known for its sheep) with rather kitsch model sheep on the mantelpieces and suchlike. Brightly coloured pictures adorn the walls – in these there are elements of the naive style, but they have rather more of a fantasy-like character than would normally be associated with this school, looking almost like stills from animated children’s films. Stone walls have been painted white and there is an elegant white armoire in a niche in the wall; in other niches we find an interesting clock and a large mirror, while some niches are picked out with ‘accent lighting’. There are exposed round-section beams, faux leather chairs; a grey complementing colour scheme for the radiator coverings and curtains, and a dark brown / toffee-coloured ‘cross-hatched’ carpet (the cross-hatching alleviating the density of the colours).
Bread was brought, along with butter (unsalted and slightly on the hard side) and very tomato-y tomato and herb oil. The bread itself was very good; very fresh and served pleasantly warm. Canapés were also offered at this juncture – just a single one each: smoked mackerel on toast, which was a pleasing little start to the meal.
We were then given the menu and wine list, the latter printed as if a rather cartoony laminated A4 newspaper. Despite its gimmicky appearance, the wine list is good, with the wines themselves at the front, then suggestions of matches of particular wines to certain dishes; while at the back are details of the producers and vineyards: all excellent, and especially given their good range of wines from different countries and regions and to suit different budgets.
We chose Hawk Crest’s Cabernet Sauvignon, from California’s Napa Valley, with grapes grown at high altitude in volcanic mountain soil. It was a deep ruby colour with a generous nose of dark berry fruit and spice. On the palate it is surprisingly dry, and we have an immediate burst of ash with blackcurrant followed by lingering deeper tones of wood intermingled with brambles and briers.
The menu focuses on fish, seafood (there’s an awful lot of lobster) and an impressively large range of types of steak; including chateaubriand, and a range of tempting sauces to have on them. Prices are undoubtedly high – but then this is really good beef from local farmers; sometimes cured in whisky, and always carefully cooked.
I started with the rare seared beef, served with flakes of parmesan cheese, rocket and crispy shallots. I was presented with slices of extraordinarily flavoursome beef, seared on both sides, piled with rocket, shavings of parmesan and a micro-herb salad on top, along with the tasty, crispy shallots. It worked beautifully well as a dish – each element deserving its own place – the rocket to cut through the fat of the beef; the parmesan to add a tang of saltiness to the proceedings; and the shallots to add a new dimension of texture in their crispy crunchiness.
Mr Marshall-Luck had the whisky cured salmon with crab and potato salad. The salmon was very good; the crab, however, was excellent, and the potato salad being placed in the middle of the salmon worked very well, as it encouraged it to be eaten with the salmon, rather than to be treated as an appendix: a mode of serving that was justified by the complementary flavours and textures that really lifted the dish.
I went for the veal cutlet for my main course, opting for the Madeira and white truffle jus sauce, but to be honest, the cutlet came so beautifully cooked with a large knob of butter melting its saltiness all over the meat that the sauce wasn’t really needed. The meat was tender – with a crunchy, well-cooked exterior – and full of flavour; cooked just as I had requested, and much enhanced by its own cooking juices which mixed with the butter. It was served on a puree which clearly also had a healthy dose of truffle oil in and which was absolutely exquisite. It also came with onion rings – in which I found the onions slightly too raw and thus prominent; chunky chips – by the look and taste them of several-times fried and thus crispy on the outside and soft on the inside; a large open cup mushroom, and herb-topped half-tomato.
My husband’s 10oz sirloin steak was served with the same puree as the veal and, likewise, with a mushroom, half-tomato, onion rings and chips. He found the presentation a little over fussy; however, the quality of the steak and its cooking certainly wasn’t at question here – it had a rich flavour, slightly salty, but the meat itself also exquisitely tender and evenly cooked, with a crisp and slightly fatty outer ‘shell’ which lent just enough bite to enable a depth of texture. It was pronounced truly excellent.
For desserts, the chocolate baked Alaska had a pleasingly ‘nursery-food’ flavour (indeed, most of the desserts seemed to share this quality, which tied in well with the tone of the rest of the menu – i.e. comfort food and lots of it!). On the whole, it was an excellent dessert, with its rich chocolate flavours (dark and milk); and a light, almost frothy, meringue, with flakes of dark chocolate permeating the whole and focusing the texture.
I had chosen the cheese-board instead of dessert, and this was extremely good. One is presented with a pre-determined selection of cheese including a rich, soft and delicious goats’ cheese with ash rind and slightly (but not too) citrussy taste; a crumbly and full-flavoured Wensleydale; a semi-soft Guernsey milk cheese that was akin to a brie in texture; a blue; and Vacherine Mont d’Or. They were served with frozen grapes (which seemed a little pointless – the coldness killed the flavour, made them difficult cold to eat properly and made the skins too hard – an interesting experiment, but not a particularly pleasant accompaniment to cheese), de-rinded celery, Carr’s water biscuits and some rather delicious and presumably home-made banana bread, the sweetness of which worked extraordinarily well with the savoury tastes of the cheeses.
We finished our meal with tea and coffee – the former very good indeed, but the latter, unfortunately, slightly on the weak side (once again, catering to the anaemic English taste, one assumes) although the beans were nicely flavoured. There were delicious home-made chocolates – the dark chocolate crunchy, rich and dark on the inside; and the whites creamy and fully flavoured, with a slightly tarter, possibly fruit, centre.
Service was excellent throughout – the staff were considerate and attentive, especially to young Tristan, whom they looked after beautifully with an impressive attention to detail. All children are given a teddy bear, and since we’ve been here before on several occasions, he’s now got a nice little collection; Wensley and Dale were added to today by Witton. The next will have to be West!
The older members of staff and the bar staff are extremely friendly and quite chatty; the younger serving staff slightly stiffer, but very nevertheless extremely polite and professional; yet I’m not sure that it’s completely appropriate to call me “Miss”, as the young man serving us did, on my turning up with my husband and son in tow, although I appreciated the compliment! A ‘one-way’ system appears to be in operation in the restaurant as far as service is concerned, thus avoiding collisions and making the movements of the waiting staff more fluid.
That the Wensleydale Heifer accept dogs in particular rooms, and that the proprietor sometimes goes around the tables talking to patrons are two very good and much-appreciated touches.
Gripes? Well, despite our love of this establishment, there are a few. Firstly, I know their clientele aren’t their fault but I was a bit shocked to hear the waitress have to explain to the woman on the adjacent table that the plate laid out was her bread plate. And on other occasions we have been disappointed – and even, on occasion (when we were hoping to have a quiet, intimate and relaxing family meal) put out – by the rowdiness and yobbishness of other patrons, who appear to be there just to drink excessively, shout and show off as much as possible.
Secondly, the music is always popular, rather than our preferred jazz and classical, and as one would expect for a fine dining establishment. On this occasion it started out with the Beatles (so not too offensive) and progressed into relatively contemporary popular music. Thankfully it was reasonably discreet but still not to be desired – although I can’t see more sophisticated music sitting particularly well with the other diners.
Thirdly, there are various greedy options – a 40oz steak and a particularly large portion of fish and chips which if you manage to finish you’re given a gluttony certificate and a t-shirt. Then there’s their boasting about having served the “world’s largest serving of fish and chips”. I just can’t understand why they go in for these gimmicks, as the eat-as-much-as-you-can and macho bravado ethos belittles the food, placing quantity over quality. How can one appreciate the excellence of a product if you’re eating 40oz of it? It’s unnecessary; and the food is so excellent that it doesn’t call for such stunts to promote it.
Finally, I know that the Wensleydale Heifer likes to be “fun” and thinks of itself as playful, but there are a few touches that are just downright puerile rather than amusing: the sexual-innuendo type of jokey elements, found, for instance, in the toilets, which are covered in cartoons revolving around the size – or lack thereof – of a particular male appendage; male impotence; female rapacity and so on. Such elements are not funny; they’re infantile, mildly distasteful and leave a sour taste in the mouth that mars an otherwise superlative meal. Mind you, given the intellectual level of many of the clientele, it is probable that they would find such school-boy toilet-humour hilariously funny.
Despite these gripes, it cannot be doubted that if you visit the Wensleydale Heifer, you will have an extremely fine meal indeed, in lovely surroundings and with excellent service. Two ladies on the bar staff are so friendly that every time we go in we are greeted like old friends – even our dogs are asked after if they are not with us; we love it so much that our regular trips to Yorkshire are planned around meals to be held at the Heifer. It is a fabulous place, with truly great chefs, in one of the most beautiful locations in England: I just wish that they could attract more sophisticated and grown-up clientele, to enable them to focus on the food that they do so marvellously well, and raise their tone to become as cultured and refined as their food is excellent.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic