Monday, September 01, 2008

The Box Tree

Sat 30 Aug 2008

I've managed to acquire a massive back log of potential posts and many things seem to be conspiring to prevent me from working my through it. Today, I was going to have a chat with you about wine ... but that has been set aside for another day because on Saturday night we ate at the Michelin starred Box Tree in Ilkley.

I could make this event sound a bit A-list, because we did only make our booking at lunch time on Saturday and we never even really made a decision to go ... but that would be dressing it all up, as we have been planning on going for ages, we had a small (and long overdue) celebration, and we did actually discuss it in the pub on Friday night. The availability of a table was down to luck and not the sway either of our names (or that of Eating Leeds!) holds.

If you need the executive summary: it was excellent. In fact, rather than dealing with the experience in order, I'm going to get the two niggles out of the way before discussing anything else.

Firstly, I was a bit unimpressed by the fact that our wine was opened out of our sight. The bottle was presented to us while we sat in the lounge and it then reappeared at our table, already open. The impressive theatre of the wine service at Pétrus aside (trolley, carafe, decanting at the table, silver coasters for the wine bottle - left for you to admire), I think it's essential to open the bottle in front of the customer. I also think it's excellent practice for the customer to see the sommelier at least smell, if not taste, the wine. While I hope that I'd pick a corked wine, and have a quiet word, I'm sure there are many customers who are either not confident in their nose or too diffident to 'make a fuss'.

Second grumble goes to the bread. We both chose granary, so the white may have been exemplary ... but the granary was really underwhelming. It had a slightly squishy, light weight consistency, with no real flavour or body.

We began the meal by sitting in the lounge-like bar area. Settled in our comfortable chairs we started with glasses of Champagne (Michel Arnould, £9.50 a glass) and a plate of treats which included anchovy cheese straws, roasted almonds, a pot of olives, some mini toasts and some delicious artichoke dip which was cold, smooth and scented with truffles.

Wine choice was complicated by the rather eclectic choice of dishes: I began with a roasted ceps and girolles risotto which I followed with roast turbot, served with a white bean purée. Andy chose to start with a warm salad of ham hock, smoked eel and duck liver, and a main course of roast grouse (the special - he ordered the last one). From a wine matching point of view - what a mess!

From a selfish point of view I was tempted by a Pinot Noir from Oregon (not ever having tried one before), but, on the advice of the sommelier, we opted for a premier cru Burgundy: a Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes 2000 from Dme Amiot-Servelle. At £65 a bottle it looks to be the standard restaurant mark up of somewhere between 200 and 300%: not extortionate and not outrageously good value. This was a lovely wine: a very smelly farmyard Burgundy, with plenty of red fruit, but also a very restrained wine. The restraint meant that it worked really well with all of our food: the soft, approachable fruit and low tannin meant that, where it might have failed (with the eel) it was fine, and despite the grouse's strong flavour, it was not lost nor did it overpower the turbot.

The food was all ... delicious. The smoked eel was declared the "best thing ever tasted", the risotto was earthy, soft and redolent with truffle, and the fish was perfect: simply roasted, served atop some white bean purée, the plate scattered with olives, beans and tomatoes. The real pièce de résistance was Andy's grouse. Before being served the roasted bird was brought out whole (its oddly long, spindly legs crossed daintily, which caused some hilarity on my part), presented on a silver tray with all its accompaniments. Andy was quite grateful it was taken away to be plated up, although I enjoyed the grandeur of the moment. "Chef would like you to see the bird before we carve it for you". If ever you will feel like royalty at the dinner table I imagine it will run something like that.

After all this, it was only right to plough on to desserts. In a reversal of the usual state of affairs, Andy chose the Valrhona chocolate tart with orange sorbet while I lined up the cheese board. The chocolate tart was gorgeous: intense, smooth and Andy's "well, it's a bit plain really" meant I got to eat half of it.

Cheese was, as it should be, a highlight of the meal. A lovely big tray of cheese arrived and, in a show of restraint, I chose four: a Corsican cheese covered in lavender and rosemary, which I think is called Fleur de Maquis, Swaledale goat's cheese, Époisses and a Yorkshire blue - and some quince paste. The Époisses was, in my opinion, the (smelly) star of the show but for Andy it was trumped by the Yorkshire blue. We shared a glass of Pansal del Calas from Spain, which is a sweet, lightly fortified red wine from Spain. I often struggle with sweet red wines and this wine didn't convince me: I remain ambivalent.

After all of this, we rolled back out to the bar area (the upstairs coffee lounge might have been a challenge!), and enjoyed coffees, chocolate, Cognac and whiskey.

A night out at the Box Tree is hardly bargain basement material: starters were between £9 and £15 and main courses between about £28 and £35. That said, the wine list does run the gamut in terms of prices, and not only contains a good range of wines by the glass but also a selection of half bottles. So it would be possible to dine here and maintain a tight hold on the budget.

But with such good food and attentive service, I think it's worthwhile to make the effort to loosen the purse strings.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep, it's called Fleur de Maquis and its a sheeps milk cheese from Corsica.

Big seller in Melbourne :-)

7:58 am  
Blogger Alex said...

Excellent! Good to know that Australians aren't missing out on excellent European cheeses! :)

1:56 pm  

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