With its creatively-themed rooms and celebrated seafood restaurant, The Wensleydale Heifer is a 17th century coaching house now making a big splash in the 21st century, finds BARRY FREEMAN
We arrived at the Wensleydale Heifer in West Witton less with a view to a kill – although I was more than aware that their steaks had been universally praised to the hilt and was dying to take advantage – and more as the victims of skyfall.
Rain, to be precise, and plenty of it.
Leaving Harrogate early evening, just as darkened heavens began to weep, by the time we reached sanctuary in this picturesque corner of the Yorkshire Dales National Park those same skies were bawling their eyes out.
Emerging from the murk heading north out of tiny grey West Witton, then, the softly lit, whitewashed Heifer came as a welcome sight – as you’d imagine it has for weary travellers throughout a long and latterly illustrious history.
Built in the 17th century, this former coaching house continues a three-century tradition of offering food, drink and shelter on this site, but with a modern spin.
And to winning effect. In recent years this family-run hotel and restaurant has won acclaim from coast to coast – ‘coast’ being a key factor.
Critics and guides – not least Michelin – have united as one to hail the Heifer as one of Britain’s finest seafood restaurants, an incredible achievement for a kitchen so deeply landlocked.
Alongside this culinary renewal, the Moss family have set out to revamp and revitalise the quality motoring hotel offer with a ‘boutique’ approach rarely seen outside the larger urban centres.
Thus it came to pass that a friendly chap ushered us out of the rain and guided us up the stairs in a recently acquired annexe (a stone building of similar style and vintage across the courtyard) to the brand new ‘007’ suite.
This happily turned out to be first and foremost a well-appointed snug suite with a huge comfortable bed, crisp fresh linen, a thumping good shower and a fine deep bath.
The 007 element?
Various items of memorabilia, a full set of Bond films to watch on a huge flatscreen TV and a ‘swinging’ plastic bubble chair suspended from the ceiling, all working exactly how I suspect the management hoped – lending an already pleasurable experience just enough fun and novelty to be genuinely amusing.
A whole range of similar plush rooms is on offer – from a Black Sheep suite for the cask fan to Chocolate Heaven for the cocoa connoisseur, a Champagne Deluxe for those prone to bubbly to a Middleham Racing for the holidaying student of the turf.
Each is available as part of a tailored package or purely as accommodation, information on rates and booking available on the hotel’s well designed, entertaining website.
And so, to dinner.
A pleasant aperitif in the snug Whisky Lounge as we perused the menu, and in less time than it takes to put away half an excellent pint of Black Sheep our minds were made up.
Opting to dine in the restaurant proper rather than the less formal ‘Fish Bar’, we were swiftly guided to our spot in a cool, airy thoroughly contemporary space.
Chic but comfortable furnishings, fresh-flower dressed tables draped in bright crisp linen beneath walls bearing eye-catching art – a scene elegantly set for fine dining.
And how fine.
The house seafood specialplatter for two confirmed in and of itself that the piscatory plaudits are entirely merited.
Highlights? Hard to pick, but Irish oysters – tasting fresh as if they’d been scooped asleep and dreaming from the ocean an instant before their ice bed left the kitchen.
As for The Heifer Fish Soup... A luxurious bisque roughly as rich in sweet sea flavours as the human palate is built to withstand.
We enjoyed every trace and happily anticipated the next instalment.
For her, bream fillets baked in banana leaf with Whitby white crab, Thai ‘kakaeng kari’, peanut satay coconut cream, crisp shallots and cashew nuts and star anise buttered rice.
For myself, the 10oz grass fed rib eye, rare as the chef thought suitable (the varied marbling of this cut makes that best a hands-on call, a former grill chef once advised me).
There were other things on my plate, including some ludicrously delicious goose fat chips, but really, truly...
I had eyes only for this meat. Have I eaten a better steak in my life? Possibly. But none spring readily to mind.
Put it this way.
In the name of informed journalism I traded a piece of steak for a little bream and, wonderful as that was – a perfect union of fish, spices and textures which set tastebuds tingling – I to this day regret parting company with that one square inch of beef.
All in all a stunning meal, complemented by a well advised glass of red and one of white from an extensive and happily wide-ranging, pricewise, list.
We spent a comfortable night as the weather continued to do its worst outside, and awoke to calm and bright if not too warming sunshine.
A bracing stroll around West Witton – which revealed itself, stripped of dense ankle height cloud, to be a charming cluster of stone, history and astonishing views – honed appetites for breakfast.
One Full English, a hearty mound of local meats and eggs, one set of grilled Whitby kippers.
The Full English got a thumbs up, the kippers got two. Garnished upon request with eggs fried, two, the best start to a day I’ve had since a stint working on the North East coast in sight of the actual smokehouses.
Great hotel, wonderful restaurant, the most affable and helpful staff from top to bottom – The Wensleydale Heifer: From Yorkshire With Love.
The Wensleydale Heifer Hotel & RestauranT, West WittoN, North Yorkshire DL8 4LS
t: 01969 622322
f: 01969 624183