The Black Swan, Helmsley, Hotel Review
The Black Swan, Helmsley
by Roger Crow
There are few things better than a sunny spring Friday evening, heading to an acclaimed hotel for a short break and what promises to be an amazing meal.
Around 90 minutes after closing our front door, my partner Rachel and I have checked into Helmsley’s 500-year-old, multi-award winner The Black Swan Hotel. The drive, despite some medium traffic on the Scarborough road, was blissful.
“I’ve gone on holiday on my doorstep,” is a phrase I repeat several times during the trip. It’s the stuff of Yorkshire tourism adverts, all shot at magic hour as we skirt the majestic Castle Howard.
We’ve been invited to not only check out the acclaimed hotel but also its taster menu.
With just enough time to freshen up and sample some gins from the bar, we settle in for the mother of all meals care of acclaimed head chef Alan O’Kane. As Rachel’s a selective pescatarian, some of our dishes at The Black Swan prove hit and miss from her point of view. In retrospect we should have gone for the veggie tasting menu, but all great culinary adventures, especially seven-course feasts, involve an element of trust as taste buds are tickled and tantalised.
Black Swan Helmsley: “The week’s stresses vanish like water down a plug hole”
The bite-sized servings are perfect for those who want to try a bit of everything without committing to one major dish. And there really is a bit of everything, from mini crab burgers to a couple of mouthfuls of sea bass; quail’s eggs; crispy oysters and ice cream with cucumber and caviar; lamb; duck liver with cocoa and soured cherries (a genius touch), as well as a couple of desserts to round things off. Obviously there’s also bread and butter, but as The Gallery is a three AA rosette restaurant, it’s far more than that. The fermented bread with beef butter and Abernethy cultured butter is extremely moreish.
A standout dish is one of the simplest: White French onion soup. One mouthful and the week’s stresses vanish like water down a plug hole. The aged Parmesan is the excellent ingredient that leaves my mouth making capital Os. Great food is nothing without a good setting, and the dining room decor is a mix of colours, mostly duck egg blue and red, with a star field of twinkling lights over head. A recurring theme is the elegant art scattered throughout the hotel. It’s all beautifully done.
Back to our marathon dinner and the best is saved until last: a deconstructed Snickers bar. A glance at the menu makes me wonder if it’s been taken out of the wrapper and chopped up, but the reality is a masterpiece of desserts. Elements of the old favourite chocolate bar (I still prefer to call it Marathon), have been recreated with the finest ingredients and topped off with a gold leaf crown. It’s so good I know cheese and biscuits would be a disappointing epilogue, no matter how excellent, so we call it a night after a cappuccino in the bar area.
Black Swan Helmsley: “We have such a good night’s sleep, it’s hard dragging ourselves out”
As the Black Swan is a dog-friendly hotel, at least one lucky hound gets plenty of attention from passing drinkers and diners as we reflect on an extraordinary evening. I’m glad I don’t drink too much as the path to our room is a fun fair attraction of a floor, and not in a bad way. The uneven surface makes me think I’ve had one too many (after a gin and half a glass of wine). But the room is a delight, with a flower-lined view of the marketplace, vintage telephone, all the facilities you’d want from a good hotel – robes, slippers, ironing board and most importantly, tea and coffee-making facilities. Bottles of water are an added bonus. Plus, the picture window and vintage teddy bear go down a storm with Rachel.
The bathroom is spotless and thankfully I don’t need a degree in plumbing to work the shower. Though a light fitting and the bathroom windowsill have seen better days, it scarcely matters. All good rooms need an outstanding bed, and the Black Swan does not disappoint there either. We have such a good night’s sleep, it’s hard work dragging ourselves out in the morning, but that breakfast won’t eat itself, and I want to see if it’s as good as dinner.
Okay, just to recap: at this point we have eaten a massive meal; slept and then returned to the dining room for breakfast. We have no real idea of where we are, or what the local facilities are like. There’s just a bubble of us, the hotel, and great food. The full Yorkshire breakfast is equally excellent. There are locally-sourced sausages, bacon and more of that fine bread setting us up for the day. Rachel’s cheese omelette, made with aged cheddar, is also a delicious palate-pleaser.
Black Swan Helmsley: “It doesn’t take long before we’ve fallen in love with the place”
We leave enough time for a potter around town before checking out, and Helmsley proves a delight, from its terrific bookshops (one celebrating more than 50 years), to its 12th-century castle ruins, delis and arts centre.
It doesn’t take long before we’ve fallen in love with the place, and suddenly The Black Swan has a new context. It’s not just that hotel where we enjoyed a couple of amazing meals and a great night’s sleep, but it suddenly holds the town together like a dining room centrepiece or The Big Lebowski rug.
After uploading a few postcard-worthy views, thanks to the hotel’s not bad Wifi, we check out just before noon (to savour every last minute), and with a heavy heart, head home. The Scarborough road now resembles a car park as a 10-mile tailback of traffic heads in the direction we’ve just come.
As you may have gathered, we wouldn’t need much of an excuse to return. Thanks heavens for Friday night getaways, and thank Helmsley for The Black Swan.
The Black Swan Hotel, Marketplace, Helmsley, YO62 5BJ
B&B from £115 per room and DB&B from £205 per room (based upon double occupancy). Seasonal offers available online. Tearoom and the 3 AA rosette ‘Gallery’ restaurant open daily. Tearoom, 10am – 5.00pm. The Gallery, 6.30pm – 9.30pm (Sunday lunch served 12 noon – 2.30pm).