JTrying to remember a meal I had three weeks ago when I’m currently unable to taste or smell anything due to an overdue case of Covid – yes that’s still one thing – is a strange experience. A kind of deprivation torture and sensory reverie all rolled into one. Luckily, it was a meal I won’t soon forget.
I made a conscious effort to visit some of the best restaurants in the north of the UK, and Roots by Tommy Banks in York is well worth it. The Black Swan’s sister restaurant in Oldstead, it’s doable in a day from London, with free time for sightseeing if you need to leave your meal… which you almost certainly will.
It’s a tasting menu only affair, which will turn some noses I’m sure, but be patient. The menu, supplied by the family farm in Oldstead as well as quality local producers, constantly changes with the seasons and what’s available – these things have started to look like an exercise in ticking – but that doesn’t mean the same Evergreen dishes are hacked again and again. Yes, lamb is served in the spring, but last year it was paired with kohlrabi and wild garlic, two of the most talked about ingredients in 2021; when I visited a few weeks ago, there was asparagus, raw milk sheep yoghurt, black garlic and punchy wood sorrel on my plate. Each dish is more a manifestation of the season than a reflection of it, guided by current trends and Banks’ own creativity.
This ingredient-driven playfulness is evident from the get-go. Upon arrival, our pallets are cleaned with chicken broth and lemon verbena, a silky cup of heat that smells like roast dinner, but without the stomach upset. It’s welcoming to see the refreshing and oddly creamy lemon verbena, more commonly associated with seafood, finally having its moment. I’ve come to hate ambiguous descriptions on menus, and this one is definitely a big offender, but when the “venison, celeriac, and yeast” comes along, my Instagram stalking pays off. It is a Jerusalem artichoke pie topped with matured beef, dressed in mandarin and marigold oil, and an artichoke and roasted yeast mousse, sprinkled with shredded smoked beef heart and dried marigolds from last year. OK, that’s a bit long for a menu. It’s much, much smaller than expected – I can hold it in my palm and devour it in one bite – but it packs a mighty umami punch, with the earthiness of artichoke and the peppery spice of marigold. I want to eat five. No, ten.
The two-part crab bun and caviar course, another Instagram spoiler, also makes me want more. The two dishes, which arrive together, are like little works of art – flavor sculptures, if you will – and look too pretty to eat, but too delicious not to be torn down in seconds. I want – no, need – the recipe for this fried brioche. I’m baffled how something so puffy can also be so creamy. It’s topped with crabmeat dressed in fermented chili and elderflower oil, a welcome kick that contrasts with the richness of the seafood. The crab “cream” that accompanies it with a parsley sauce and mussels and a spoonful of Daurenki caviar is like a savory dessert. Two bites of pure radiance.
I’m also rather smitten with the lamb cruffin which arrives alongside the aforementioned lamb. I do want to say that I was drawn to the culinary ingenuity of Roots for Banks and its restaurants’ reputation for local, seasonal cuisine done right, but I’d be lying if I said the sight of this croissant-muffin hybrid stuffed with delicious lamb neck and covered in lamb crackle on Roots social media was not at least partly (if not entirely) responsible. Are additional descriptions even necessary? You can tear it up and enjoy it on its own, but its main function is to mop up the lamb sauce seasoned with black currants and wood sorrel. That subtle citrus flavor in every dish, from ingredients like sorrel and lemon verbena, is the common thread that ties the menu together, perfect for the season and revealing just how thoughtful this recipe creation is. The lamb, a cross saddle of Texel roasted on the bone, is served with the finest tip of asparagus ever, grilled and crisscrossed with yoghurt and black garlic. More proof that presenting is an art form.
Other supporting acts included a brined and grilled Senshyu onion straight from the farm served in a pool of whey and fermented onion sauce (translation: an extremely bouji pickled onion); a selection of local cheeses that featured distinctive – and delicious – transparent crackers made from seeds and potato starch; a fabulously creamy dessert made from chicory root and potato (from bottom to top: chicory crumble, chicory root ice cream, fingerling potato mousse, chicory root powder, chicory caramel), showing how far you can go with just one small ingredient. All of this is expertly paired with a drinks package that marries wines with main ingredients. The acidity and bubbles of a Classic 2015 cuvée from Charles Palmer cut through the richness of the crab and complement the creaminess of the brioche. A 2019 Varone Heida adds smoke and pear drops to this pickled onion — and would have worked well with cheese, too. With turbot, a Château Bela-Egon Muller Riesling from 2018 with strong notes of honey. For the lamb, the waiter snuck in a tannin-rich 2010 Vallana Gattinara from the more expensive of the two drink packages. The Pedro Ximenez Cardenal Cisneros, a big, rich sherry with fruit, nut and coffee punches, was perfect for the chicory-potato dish, but could have been a dessert on its own. More and more, I find myself returning half-drunk glasses of wine – whether that’s a reflection of my own drinking ability or an indication that these packs are just a little too much, that’s a topic for another time. .
However, not everything is up to par. I’m surprised I don’t like the “pear, spruce, Cote Hill Blue” – glazed spheres of Williams pear, drops of dark apple puree in a pine and red currant broth, topped with a blue cheese granita that is so spicy it will take your breath away. It’s a dish that makes me appreciate the profession, but beware: the granita is strong and could be off-putting for regular dinner. A Marmite dish. Steamed turbot with grilled crucifers (is there another way to have them?) and celeriac sauce, which I probably would have enjoyed on any other menu, seems simple after such power of flavor. I’m just not a fan of macaroons, the last part of the menu, finding them too sweet and too sticky. These stipulations seem just a matter of taste, however, in the face of such an imaginative and expertly executed meal.
If you can look beyond the price of £160 per person, plus £19 for cheese and £75 to £130 for drinks packages – and that’s high demand, especially outside of London – you’ll find a tasting dynamic and inventive. menu that draws a fine line between the stuffiness often associated with this style of eating and celebrating the excellence of the terroir. You can see why he received the Michelin star in 2021 – and how he kept it a year later. It strikes the right balance between tradition and modernity, and also comes with some of the most charming service I have experienced in the restaurant world. One look at their Instagram page and you’ll see why – I love a restaurant that ‘teases’ their next dishes. If you want to experience the best that this part of the country has to offer, Roots should be at the top of your list. I’m extremely jealous of the people of York and can only hope Tommy Banks’ next venture lands a little further south.