Ashfield House, Grassington – Restaurant Review
By Matt Callard
Hidden gem? Surely not in this day and age. Such is the current feverish state of food blogging in Yorkshire that it’s remarkable if a chip butty gets devoured without someone first photographing it and then submitting an online review somewhere (two blogs per second are started worldwide and, yes, food is the main subject). So the idea that a working restaurant on our very doorsteps was serving impressive food in an original style, but somehow keeping it low key and away from the multitudes of professional and amateur food writers out there, quite frankly beggared belief.
Anyway, I’ve been tipped off about so-called ‘hidden gems’ before and have generally found it easy to supplant the phrase with ‘overpriced’ or ‘lost’ or just plain ‘weird’. So when I was told one such place was nestling among Grassington’s cobbles, bric-a-brac shops and designer boutiques (and, of course, Grassington itself is hardly a hidden enclave, as anyone who’s tried to park there on a Saturday will vouchsafe) well, my critical hackles spiked.
Except there it was. Ashfield House, with its walled garden and original timbers and open fire and honesty bar. With its 400-year history and small, one sitting dining room and, heck yes, some very fine cooking coupled with a refreshing, inclusive, sociable approach from the owners when it came to service and interaction. You see, the food is good (and we’ll come to that), but the real stars of the Ashfield House experience are owners Joe and his wife Elizabeth (‘the Major’). An exotic Maltese-American coupling who have, via a long and winding road, found their spiritual home inside Yorkshire’s fair borders and use it to indulge in two of their greatest talents – cooking and socialising.
“Part Antonio Carluccio, part Dorothy Parker”
You see, the Ashfield House experience is, in essence, a sociable one. If you’re the sort who likes their food served in starchy silence, or you’re not one for participating in the lost art of conversation, or you’re simply more of a wallflower-type, then Ashfield House might not be for you. You’ll need to mingle pre-dinner with your fellow diners in the lounge, clink-clink your G&Ts and make small talk with strangers, so if this sounds to you like some nightmarish 21st century hybrid of Abigail’s Party, Come Dine With Me and Dante’s Inferno, stick to Pizza Express.
For the rest of us, there’s little need to worry about awkward silences with Joe and the Major taking care of things. They’ll buzz about, ask questions, swap stories and relate anecdotes. They’re a great double act – part Antonio Carluccio, part Dorothy Parker – and they will make you feel right at home. In fact, they’ll insist upon it.
When you do take your seat in the small but neat dining room you already know you’re in the hands of real food people, who love and appreciate good produce and know the best that their locale can provide. Joe still cooks, but has recently handed over duties to a talented protégée – although you just know that he still has a hand in much of the cooking and prep.
They decide menus on a daily basis depending on whatever quality produce the kitchen can get its hands on. There’s plenty of choice in this part of the world. Naturally, everything is prepared freshly from scratch and cooked on the night. This is a working kitchen in all aspects. Albeit nearer in spirit to modern pop-ups than the frozen stock and bulk orders of a big city eaterie.
There’s a good wine menu on offer with fair mark-ups. You have a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts. Once ordered, your hosts will flutter here, there and everywhere from kitchen to restaurant to table. They seem genuinely interested in your opinions of the food. Occasionally, Joe will seamlessly offer up an anecdote from his seemingly limitless armory. It really is all good fun.
But what about the food? Seriously, with this level of interaction it would be embarrassing, to say the least, if the mustard remained uncut. Starters of white onion soup (full-flavoured, sweet, perfectly seasoned) and a fabulous slab of salmon dressed with a terrific and unusual combo of diced, smoked ham, chicken and vegetables ensured there were no such embarrassing moments. I would happily have eaten it as a main.
As the wine and conversation flowed and people relaxed into their participatory dining roles, the restaurant’s general hubbub was amplified and a terrific atmosphere was created. Food and socialising is too often a lost art. Plenty of over-precious restaurants forget that when the two combine they are a formidable life-force.
Mains brought together classic ingredients, treated them well and served them with pride and a twist. A lovingly cooked sea bass sat on a juicy onion risotto. An iron-y, plump duck is nicely complemented by a deep and sweet red wine jus. All side vegetables are perfectly done. Generally, there was a feeling that this was excellent, appropriate food for the location, the company and the surroundings. And that really isn’t as easy to do as it sounds. A final flourish of desserts allowed the kitchen to show off some nice, delicate touches. Particularly an almond tart with homemade ice cream.
But at Ashfield House food is just part of the show. It is your fellow diners and hosts, along with your own good selves that make up the players for a great evening‘s entertainment. I for one don’t mind drawing back the curtains on this particular hidden gem. Go visit it now before the foodie hordes descend.
Ashfield House, Summers Fold, Grassington, Near Skipton, North Yorkshire, BD23 5AE
Dinners are £36 per person – booking recommended.
Meals served Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday.
Rooms from £48 per person, per night – see website for details and offers.
01756 75 25 84