Catherine Musgrove enjoys a trip over the border to Yorkshire
Standing proudly at the top of a handsome market square, the Black Swan in Helmsley offers high-end food in down-to-earth surroundings.
There’s higgledy-piggledly staircases, uneven floors, and doors you have to duck beneath, and it’s all presented with a Laura Ashley-style make-over, that they’ve almost got right.
After trudging in from a cold, overcast night, me and husband Chris darted up a narrow staircase to Room 2, which has an original latticed window peeking out onto the front of the hotel.
The biggest compliment I can pay the room is that it felt more like a bedroom than a hotel room.
The muted creams and burgundy colour scheme beckoned us in, with the original wooden beams jutting out of the ceiling and grand wooden bed adding to the rustic feel. A (rather dusty) Bose music system and small wall-mounted television brought the room into the 21st century.
Then came the disappointment. The bathroom was seriously dated. A lot of money has been spent renovating this hotel, but the bath, shower and toilet look untouched since the 1990s.
Touches of this can also be seen elsewhere – in the old fire doors on the landings and in the public toilets .
Chris and I made our way to the downstairs bar to peruse the six-course tasting menu.
This is not your typical pub grub. This is high-end, inspired and daring, but without the stuffiness and outlandishness of some of the Michelin-starred contemporary hotels in the Lake District.
No wonder it’s just been given a 3 AA rosette rating.
We began with a pepper seared tuna amuse bouche and I’m afraid, not being a fish fan, it wasn’t for me.
Chris, on the other hand said it was lovely, and I believe him.
The starter was ‘Piggy in a Garden’, a pressing of local ham hock, black pudding, baby vegetables, a quail egg, and soft herbs.
An absolute winner. The black pudding wasn’t too fatty, and the egg was nicely runny.
Then we had another fish dish – sea bream with apples in a variety of forms, including gel, crunchy slices and puree.
Having already said I don’t care for fish, this was to me the best dish of the night. It was light, slightly charred, and there wasn’t too much of it.
Local lamb was next. Small, tender cutlets were layered on top of one another, with delicately-drizzled jus and fresh veg, but to me, it was more a case of ‘follow that’ after the sea bream.
Then, a new (and exciting) experience for me - a pre-dessert.
It came presented in two shot glasses, one filled with cream soda, and the other salted caramel popcorn icecream. I sipped at the soda as I ate the icecream.
The fizziness signalled the great shift from savoury to sweet, with the salted caramel a quirky bridge.
Then the dessert – a play with pistachio flavours and textures – a light, green cake with sweet pistachio decorations, a sharp but sweet cherry sorbet and olive oil.
Very, very good indeed, but I would have liked more on the plate.
Nicely full but not stuffed, we retired once again to the bar, and were followed by a couple of coffees with eye-catching chocolate petit fours in lollipop shapes.
Nestled in the corner of the bar was a local singer with her acoustic guitar.
She was brilliant. One woman, a guitar, a bar, a fine selection of cocktails, fine wines and gins, and the night couldn’t have been more enjoyable.
As the evening wore on, one of the older guests decided to have a dance at the bar, then a couple joined in, and then another.
And all of a sudden, the bar was jiggling and jiving, and singing along and having a whale of a time.
We felt at home here. Everything was comfortable, warm and cosy.
This hotel is very good, the food and the drink is excellent, but it’s not quite perfect.
Knowing the tasting menu was £50 each, I asked about the cost of the room, and was told the whole package ranged from £250 to £350 for a couple, obviously depending on the time of year.
That would make the room either £150 or £250.
I think £150 is bang on the money for Room 2, and that if you paid £250, you paid too much.
The foyer and the bedroom was also stiflingly hot, and breakfast at £15 was good, but not worth £15 on account of the small portions.
So, some of the value for money is questionable, but I can’t wait to return.