The Black Swan is perhaps the prime example of how not all Michelin Stars are created equal and is the very definition of underwhelming...
Sweeping down through the very picturesque lanes of North Yorkshire, you feel the excitement growing as this small country pub hoves into view. There is no doubting that it being awarded a Michelin Star has put it on the map and made this quiet rural backwater into a food tourist destination. Last year the restaurant was named best in the world by Trip-Advisor. It's Head Chef Tommy Banks is also a minor celeb having appeared on Great British Menu, Masterchef and Sunday Brunch whilst also being the joint face of Jacamo clothing...I don't know why either?! His culinary skills are well documented and even the Michelin Guide states that "dishes are highly technical, skilled and well conceived". So I was undoubtedly very keen to visit and sample his fare.
The remoteness of The Black Swan is a unique feature of this eatery, requiring evening diners to find local accommodation or stay in one of the restaurants own nine rooms. These are reasonably priced, well equipped modern rooms that are genuinely very nice to stay in and include breakfast. You are however choosing to make this the focal point of your trip, this isn't like popping out to a restaurant in London and getting a taxi home, you are planning a whole trip around a tasting menu.
Having showered and changed for dinner, my dinner companion and I were invited into the main bar for a pre-drink. Being a pleasant evening we chose to sit outside and enjoy the summer evening. The bar itself is I assume very much unchanged from its days as a walkers pub, the same heavily rustic style and dark wood. After a petite canapés of crab on a biscuit we were invited to be seated at our table.
The restaurant itself is situated on the upper floor, so diners ascend a narrow red brick lined staircase to the main dining area. The scenery then changes dramatically, gone are the horse brasses and oak benches and instead you are greeted by an Ikea showroom of light pine furniture and pale walls. A few hovering shelves are adorned with random plants and demijohns of bizarre homegrown veg liquors, such as woodruff bourbon...none for me thanks!
Dishes were obviously going to be petite as your only option is the tasting menu, no exceptions! They were somewhat of a rollercoaster for us, ranging from pleasant to "can I hide this in the pot plant". One such offender was a slice of raw steak dusted in bone marrow, such a waste of steak for me and such a waste of bone marrow for the dog. Many of these dishes are served on what can only be described as granite hockey pucks and require the use of fingers to eat them. This is no issue in the case of dishes such as the langoustine (pictured left) as it was served on a twig ( it is actually a hedgerow twig ), there were however dishes such as a steamed dumpling that we were expected to consume with sticky fingers. Something I normally reserve for a BBQ.
The chefs signature dish is the now infamous beetroot steak, this became well publicised after it appeared on Masterchef not too long ago. It is pressed beetroot that has been cooked in beef fat for 5 hours and served with goats cheese and horseradish. I had seriously high expectation for this dish, for the amount of high praise it received I felt sure it would be the high point of the menu. Sadly not, it tasted like undercooked beetroot...no great surprise really as that's what it was. The strongest flavour was the goats cheese and it neutralised all the potentially hidden flavours. For such a hyped dish it was a bitter and crunchy disappointment. At this point there is, as I believed, a break in the proceedings as we were served bread and butter...no....this was one of our courses. On the tasting menu of a Michelin Starred restaurant was humble slab of sourdough and plain butter. I was actually shocked as this is a side dish or complimentary offering in every restaurant in the world, here it would seem it deserves a course in its own right.
Desserts were an improvement with my favourite being a mini ice-cream sandwich. Soon we were back to "underwhelming" with an offering of woodruff ice cream (pictured left) and vegetable french toast (pictured right). Both of these dishes lacked flavour with the prominent taste being that of sugar, these were more akin to eating a meringue than an expertly crafted dessert.
Overall our dining experience was pleasant, it was fun to see all the other diners being amazed at what had been presented to them. I was thankful however that we had chosen to forgo the wine pairings as these we accompanied by a nearly 4 minute lecture about the wine, delivered by a very enthusiastic lady who wants you to share her passion. I felt sorry for the guests who chose this service as they looked more like hostages than diners.
The Black Swan is worth a visit, but like many, the diners are ticking it off their list and bragging about having been. It is a food tourist destination first and not one worthy of a return. I feel that this is the very definition of "The emperors new clothes", that no one dared say it's lacklustre through fear of being labelled an uncultured swine. Myself and my dining companion that evening both left with the same word on our lips "underwhelming". This is proof that not all Michelin Stars are created equal and that no amount of press coverage, media time or trip-advisor reviews can re-write the base truth that the food is just o.k.
If you are tempted to try a Michelin starred restaurant in Yorkshire we strongly suggest "The Pipe And Glass" at South Dalton, or "The Star Inn" Harome, both very deserving of their star.