Monday, 24 September 2012

A weekend in Harrogate

My Mother reached a milestone birthday this year, and as her present, I promised to take her away somewhere nice for the weekend. I was a little slow in organising the trip: her birthday was in January, and we visited Harrogate on the last weekend of August! Having kept her waiting for so many months, I put great planning into where to stay and eat, to ensure that it was worth the wait.

We stayed at a fantastic B&B called the Baytree House, the perfect distance from the city centre for us to walk off our dinner each evening. I can also confirm that their 'award-winning breakfasts' are delicious (and award-winning! - the awards are framed in their breakfast room), and we sampled a variety of their menu - Eggs Benedict, a full English, smoked salmon & scrambled eggs, and porridge. The latter my Mum declared to be "nearly as good as [her] own" - I do hope the Baytree realise what high accolade she is awarding them here!

Harrogate turned out to be a fantastic place for a girly weekend, as we wandered the cobbled streets (though not so good for heels!), tucked into fruit tarts and scones at Betty's, tried on many a pair of vintage designer shoes, and visited the fantastic foodie shop, Lewis & Cooper, where they sold both cooking Marsala and Madeira, something Jamie had been trying to get his hands on for a while (yes, I was kind enough to bring some home with me for him).

I had asked the Twitter world for recommendations for dinner, and though I very much wanted to try the gastronomic delights of van Zellers, I didn't think it was quite my Mum's cup of tea. As one does on another's birthday (or 8 months after it), I ignored my preference and hunted far and wide (on Google) for somewhere that I thought she would really enjoy. Several people had suggested a restaurant called 'the Tannin Level' and after scoping out its menu, I decided this would be the best bet.

From reading their website, it sounds as though they have been running for around thirty years, but have perhaps recently re-branded. Their menu is is varied enough for everyone to find something that they would like (or most things in my case), and they do twists on classics. They also have a varied and reasonably-priced wine list. The atmosphere is very cosy as it is a basement site, with a 'rustic' feel to it.

We dined at 7pm without a booking and were seated immediately. The restaurant wasn't particularly busy, although it did pick up throughout the evening, and I was sorry to see that nearby chain restaurants were much busier. It's in a funny part of town - or seemed to be for someone who doesn't know Harrogate very well - somewhat out of the way, though this is certainly meant as no criticism. Service was fantastic throughout, and even though we were hidden away in the back room were frequently checked on.

As my Mum doesn't eat meat, I managed to persuade her to share the Seafood Tasting Board. This was made up of a variety of small dishes - (from left to right) smoked haddock fondue, salmon & leek fishcake (just visible hiding behind the next dish!), prawn cocktail, salmon terrine (hidden at the back), and crab salad with an avocado puree and gazpacho. Everything was very well seasoned and tasted delicious. The prawn cocktail had a hint of citrus which worked really nicely, and the fondue was rich and unctuous, a real treat as I've never had fondue before. I adore crab and so was very pleased when my Mum said she wasn't a big fan. This reminded me of a paired down version of Room's staple crab & prawn cocktail starter. My only complaint would be that it needed more poppy seed croutons.

For mains I chose one of the specials - hake served in a garlic butter sauce, served with prawns and asparagus. Now this was rich! The fish was beautifully cooked with a crisp skin (any of you who have read my LiveBait review will know this is a must for me), sat on a bed of potatoes, cooked through with sweet white onions. The prawns were cooked to perfection - something I have rarely experienced in restaurants - and the asparagus were encased in a surprising filo pastry. Personally, I didn't feel it needed this spring roll effect and could have done without it, but otherwise - a perfectly accomplished mid-range restaurant dish.

My Mum went for the Madras spiced Salmon, served with 'Bombay potatoes', cucumber and mint raita, and curried lentils. I thought they had done a really good job of its presentation and my Mum was certainly impressed by the raita stuffed cucumber. I was allowed a little taste, and unfortunately for my mother, was glad that I'd chosen mine! Whilst the flavours had penetrated the salmon well, it was a tad overcooked, and I felt the potatoes were a little watery. Overall, she seemed to enjoy it, but I felt it wasn't as well cooked as our starters or my main.

We were too full for dessert, so called it a night after finishing our bottle of wine. The portion sizes were very generous, and I think we both would have been sated from just one course. Overall, the experience was fantastic - in part due to the company - but also felt that the service and ambience added to it. The food was good on the whole, but I wouldn't recommend the salmon. By the way - as far as I'm aware it isn't a fish restaurant, we just happened to have a bit of an overload!

On the second night, we stumbled upon a restaurant called Timberlake's, literally a stone's throw away from van Zellers. I wistfully looked in the window of the fine dining restaurant, but ended up being perfectly happy with the tiny bistro we ended up in. It really is a small restaurant, and I would definitely recommend booking. We hadn't, but just managed to get in as many tables were turned away after us. I'm afraid I don't have any photographs to accompany the review, but had such a nice time there that I wanted to write a few words on it. It's quite an easy spot to miss in the evening as it is situated in a cobbled courtyard, surrounded by antique shops, and is the only restaurant there at night.

As I mentioned, it was full most of the evening, and there was just one waitress to serve everyone. Now I reckon in my waitressing days I could have just about handled that, but I'm always impressed to see someone else who can hack it! It also seemed that there were just two chefs in the kitchen, which I suppose was just about right as the dining room seated around 25. The menu is large, and I would say, seems to focus on 'bistro classics'; there are a range of well-thought out soups and salads, followed by a small selection of starters and mains such as slow-roast duck leg, Toulouse sausages, several steaks and also a 'curry of the day' (I didn't think this quite fitted but seemed to go down a treat with three out of four diners on the next table). The menu also states that they aim to source locally and everything is made from scratch. Many other restaurants could do well to take note from them!

To start, I opted for the chicken liver parfait, served with pickled pear, cornichons and toast. The parfait was served in a dinky kilner jar, which did prove a little fiddly to get out at the end, but by gum!, I managed it. This was delicious, and I can't fault the parfait. I would mention that a few more slices of pickled pears wouldn't go amiss... My Mum opted for the French onion soup, and again, kindly let me have a taste. This was as good as any I've had (and better than Jamie's, sssh!).

For mains, my Mum had the sea bream, served with artichokes and sweet red peppers. This was well seasoned and again, had a crisp skin. It also came with mashed potato, which I thought was a slightly odd accompaniment but it was enjoyed nonetheless. In a meaty mood after the previous day's fish overload, I went for the minute rib-eye. At just 5oz, I ensured I would not make the same mistake as the day before when I had over-indulged. Served with chips and watercress it more than filled a hole. The quality of the meat was very good and seemed larger than the 5oz described. Whilst the chips came in a mini deep-fat fryer basket, they didn't seem to have been fried long enough. Slightly pale, and not crisp enough, I would have halved their size and double-fried them.

All things considered, the meal was tasty and of good quality. I also noted they had a good range of beers for a small restaurant (such as Goose Island). Their prices are low - much lower than any restaurant I've visited in England in recent years - and I would definitely recommend a visit, even if just at lunch time for their soup and parfait!

The Tannin Level
5 Raglan Street, Harrogate
01423 560 595

1 Montpellier Mews, Harrogate,
01423 313485