The first time I went to York was with primary school. I can’t be sure of my age, but I do know that, being the first time away without Mom, I cried the entire day. So much so that a teacher had to walk me around the city whilst others went to look at vikings and smell the lightly shitty aroma that haunts the Yordvik centre. The second occasion, this time in my twenties, I was dumped mid-dirty weekend for my bastardry, cutting short the trip whilst she drove us home in silence, dropping me at my front door and driving off never to be seen again. The third I hit my highest ever checkout – 84, if you’re asking – at darts. Visits to York have always involved tears. Sometimes good tears, others less so. It’s what the shitty smelling vikings would have wanted.
We’re here again, this time visiting friends of my girlfriend. A brief stay with lots of walking and sightseeing and zero vikings. Through the walls and past Guy Fawkes’ gaff, back out the walls, Biscoff donut for breakfast, back inside, through an absolute Shambles and on to Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, back out the wall, into some gardens, on the river, then lunch at Roots, Tommy Banks’ city outpost of the Black Swan at Oldstead. York sure is pretty.
Banks’ food intrigues me. On Great British Menu he comes across as the love child of Simon Rogan and Alan Titchmarsh; a green fingered, self taught cook, who understands the seasons and approaches the lush Yorkshire terroir in a way not dissimilar to Marcus Nilsson at Faviken. At Roots, the interior has various Kilner jars lending to the design whilst preparing for the colder months. Pickles and preserves and vinegars, each from Oldstead, will help make up the menu when the cold draws in. This isn’t the place for smashed avo.
The tasting menu is long and thankfully short on description, though generally follows a similar path on all courses. Almost everything is licked with vinegar, with most looking to lactic or floral notes. A tart casing made from carrot is the first thing we eat; the filling of trout and caviar a natural pairing. Then pea custard, with peas dressed in elderflower vinegar, and frozen whey. It’s underwhelming and not particularly nice. Sublime bread, sturdy crust and crumb full of flavour, with an outrageous chive butter, arrives at the same time as superb seed crackers with a savoury cheese custard dip that has drawn on Dairylea dunkers for inspiration.
The charcoal oil used to make the beef tartare course seem cooked is an old trick passed from Mark Birchall’s stage at El Celler de Can Roca into the UK via his then role at L’Enclume. Here it’s on the plate with more delicate crackers and set horseradish that adds fiery hits throughout. Interesting and delicious. A star turn of a salad of various produce from Oldstead featuring beetroot turned into gummy morsels of happiness, dressed oyster leaf and courgette seemingly plucked seconds ago. It’s one of my dishes of the year. The brill that follows is a let down by comparison. The fillet is a minute over cooked and the creme fraiche sauce muted. The accompanying girolle mushrooms are the most flavoursome things on the plate by a distance.
After an intermediary course of Granny Smith juice, sorrel and pickled onions we hit another home run. Pork fillet and belly, tomato with lardo, teeny tomatoes dried out to umami red raisins, onion soubise and pickled. It’s knock out. The fillet, often so disappointing, has a rich sausage-like flavour, and the belly, skin crisped and rich. The sauce, a classic jus split with basil, works to lift the tomato and onion. This is tear inducing two star cooking.
Desserts start with frozen blackberry, a foam of yogurt and granita of anise hyssop which is cleansing if forgettable. Then a strawberry cheesecake deconstructed, pink meringues pitched like a festival tent hiding a multitude of fun, before madeleines filled with cherry compote and an ice cream made from the front husk. Give me twenty of those madeleine anytime.
Lunch isn’t cheap. £110 per person on the tasting menu, and a good chunk on top with two bottles of wine and cocktails. I enjoyed it on the whole; an experience not too dissimilar to my first visit to L’Enclume when they had just one star and the cooking felt a little more raw. It’s made me more intrigued to book the Black Swan, where Tommy generally mans the pans, the food is a touch more expensive and the accolades are growing faster than the forced rhubarb. The highlights here were extremely good indeed. Memorable, even. Roots is a good restaurant set in a beautiful city. There is a lot to like about that.