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The Black Swan is a handsome 16th century inn located in the tiny village in Olstead, North Yorkshire. The building was bought by local farmers Tom and Anne Banks in 2006 and together with their sons Tommy and James the couple turned the Black Swan into a successful pub/restaurant with rooms. From 2008 till 2013 the kitchen was run by chef Adam Jackson and in 2012 the Black Swan was awarded a Michelin star.
After Adam Jackson's departure in 2013, Tommy Banks, then aged 24 and more or less self-taught, took over as head chef and managed to maintain the restaurant's Michelin starred status. In recent years additional fame was brought to Oldstead by Tommy's appearances on BBC's Great British Menu in 2016 and 2017, and recently (after my visit though) The Black Swan won the Tripadvisor Travelers' Choice "Best Restaurant in the World" award in the fine dining category, making (online) headlines all over the world.
(courtesy of The Black Swan)
Until this day, the Banks family very much have a hands-on presence in the restaurant, with Tommy's mother Anne and his brother James running front of house, and the family's own 2-acre vegetable farm supplies most of the produce. But local involvement doesn't stop there. Reading Tommy Banks' blogpost about the 2016 redesign of the restaurant, I also learnt that the dining room tables were designed and made in Oldstead by the Black Swan's "handymen".
The Black Swan is open daily for dinner and on Saturdays for lunch. The restaurant offers a multi-course tasting menu (around 7 courses + 3 appetisers) for £95 and at Saturday lunchtime there's also a lunch tasting menu (around 5 courses + 1 appetiser) for £60. I had lunch with my husband at The Black Swan in August 2017 and we both ordered the large tasting menu.
First to arrive, with our aperitifs in the bar, was a dainty, completely even, sablée tartlet filled with caramelised cream, freshly podded snappy peas and elderflowers.
At the table two more appetisers followed. First a soft dumpling with a delicious chicken leg meat filling and served with a lemon verbena mayonnaise. The chicken filling was smooth and rich and the mayonnaise made for a nice tangy contrast. This was followed by tender squid (cooked a la plancha), seasoned with a hint of horseradish, served with a delicate tomato bouillon, seasoned with elderflower oil, and garnished with edible flowers, such as nasturtium and violets. Lovely clean and fresh flavours, the elderflower oil delivering a nice floral-sweet edge.
First course of the tasting menu was lobster, glazed with beurre noisette, topped with al-dente onion petals, seasoned with lemon verbena and lovage oil. On top of the onions were some sliced fresh gooseberries and purple shamrock leaves. Superb sweet and juicy lobster, the beurre noisette giving it just the right touch of luxury. The seasoning however was ever so slightly on the salty side. The onions added crunch and a light bitter-sweetness, and I liked the gentle acidity of the gooseberries.
Second course was Crapaudine beetroot (from the Black Swan's own vegetable garden) cooked in beef fat for 5 hours, and carefully adorned with dots of smoked fish roe crème, goat's curd and horseradish crème, pickled beetroot discs, and linseed crackers. Crapaudine, also known as toad beetroot or lady toad is possibly one of the oldest beetroot varieties (heirloom would be the 'en vogue' term), with records dating back over 1,000 years.
The slow cooking had made the beetroot bluntly and seductively sweet, the intense sweetness balanced out beautifully by the goat's curd and horseradish crème. Even better, however, was the combination of the beetroot and both the fish roe and goat's cured crème, an exceptional flavour marriage, the kind that envelops you.
On to the third course, a controversial dish called "Turbot with Strawberries and Cream", a dish especially devised for this year's Great British Menu ("GBM") competition, which was themed "a celebration of 140 years of Wimbledon" (hence the strawberries and cream of course). Controversial, because it certainly got opinions divided during and after the GBM series aired this summer. Nevertheless, this dish was served as the fish course at the GBM finals banquet.
So, turbot, strawberries and cream.The turbot was exquisitely cooked and garnished with thinly sliced marinated strawberries, sprinkled with fennel pollen. Underneath the turbot was a little salad of finely chopped fresh strawberries, golden beetroot, and fennel, coated with a light dressing of fennel pollen oil and elderflower vinegar. That leaves the cream, which was served here as a beautifully seasoned sauce "split" with some chive oil. The natural richness of flavour of the turbot matched wonderfully with the different levels of subtle sweetness of the strawberries, with a subtle green sweetness coming from the marinated strawberries, and a higher but still mild level of sweetness coming from the salad. Finally the creamy sauce, which made for a harmonious and pleasing flavour experience, the chive oil adding a nice little hint of onionness.
Main course was an excellent piece of slow-roasted belly pork with a gorgeous layer of soft fat and accompanied by roasted and pickled onions, a smooth and bright yellow rape seed and chicken glacé emulsion and fried hen of the wood mushrooms. A fantastic, well-executed dish, the rapeseed emulsion giving a unconventional flavour kick but also, together with the pickled onions, helping to cut through the delectable richness of the pork.
The meal was concluded with three sweet courses. To start there was a comforting dish of rhubarb compote topped with crumble and brown butter ice cream, and served with a wonderful dark caramel sauce. Equally wonderful was a light dessert of fresh red fruits, such as strawberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, and white currants, complemented by hay-flavoured cream and finished with woodruff sugar and fresh cicely. Delicious sweet and tart berries, their natural sweetness enhanced by the woodruff sugar and the cream. Best of all, though, was an accompanying, deliciously scrumptious, Alpine strawberry ice cream and praline biscuit sandwich. Last in line was a precisely layered cake of chicory root, black current leaf crème and black currant puree.
These were three relatively simple but excellent desserts, covering all the aspects of a sweet ending of a meal. There was comfort and creaminess, there was sugariness, but equally important, also freshness and tartness; it was August after all.
When the Black Swan was awarded a Michelin star back in 2012, it was still listed as a pub in the Michelin guide, but today's meal showed that the Black Swan has without a doubt outgrown its pub status. Since the 2015 edition of the Michelin guide, it's no longer listed as a pub but as a restaurant. These days, you get the best of both worlds at the Black Swan. The room, the bar, and the service still have the warmth and charm you would expect in a pub. Service today was in the very capable and friendly hands of Anne Banks, who effortlessly and patiently explained all the details of the dishes.
Unmistakably unpubby, however, is Tommy Banks' modern and poised food. Today's dishes showcased inspired flavour combinations and were executed with precision and finesse. Well thought-out dishes without fuss and feathers, and Banks doesn't complicate things with too many flavours. Cooking at Michelin starred level at the age of 28 is already quite an accomplishment, and it goes without saying that this talented and instinctive chef still holds a lot of promise for the future. Tripadvisor's "Best Restaurant in the World" accolade might be a bit silly, but it couldn't have happened to a nicer restaurant. Frankly, I can't wait to go back and enjoy some more of the Banks family's food and hospitality.