If you had to describe a restaurant declared the best in the world, you might think of somewhere distinctly glamorous.
I’ve eaten at six establishments that have held that title. My travels have taken me to glorious locations, from a hillside villa overlooking the sea in Catalonia to the back streets of Modena, Italy.
I never expected to journey to a village pub deep in the countryside of northern England, reached by a narrow and winding road, where the first thing you see when you finally arrive is a group of locals enjoying a pint of beer on a bench outside.
The Black Swan at Oldstead scooped the title last week in the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Restaurants awards in the fine dining category. That is rather different and (let’s face it) much less prestigious than the title handed out annually by “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” awards, closely watched in the restaurant industry.
Yet it’s not a meaningless accolade, and don’t knock it just because it’s from a mass-market online travel site.
In fact, it looks as if it may be almost life-changing for chef Tommy Banks and his family.
“If I’m honest, when someone told me, I thought it sounds like a bit of a spoof, someone pulling our leg or some sort of scam,” Banks said in an interview in the stone-paved bar, with a log fire, panelled walls and a blackboard listing cocktails.
“We never imagined quite how big it would become. Things just went crazy. The phone rang off the hook, and e-mails, e-mails, e-mails. We took 1,200 bookings in four hours, and that has filled us up for the rest of the year.
“There were reporters outside when I came in the next morning to cook breakfast and we had TV trucks all day. We had 90,000 people on our website in one afternoon.”
Banks said the reaction was much bigger than when he first won a Michelin star in 2013 at age 24, or more recently when his business got a bump after he appeared on the BBC television show, the Great British Menu.
I would argue TripAdvisor is not the best guide to eating out. Many of the reviewers know little about food, which can result in unusual recommendations.
For example, the site’s “London Top 10” features some unlikely restaurants. First place is taken by The Peninsula, a hotel dining room in Canary Wharf.
I have never been, so I am not criticising it, but I’ve never even heard it mentioned.
It’s a similar story for Gastronhome, a French bistro on Lavender Hill, which is placed third.
I had to Google that one. The Foyer at Claridge’s places sixth, outranking the hotel’s Fera restaurant, which features on most lists.
Yet the TripAdvisor awards, which started in 2012, have some claim to importance.
Rather than being picked by a panel of insiders or experts, the restaurants on the list are based on an algorithm that takes into account the quantity and quality of reviews around the world over a 12-month period.
Another British restaurant, Raymond Blanc’s Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, places second, and third is Maison Lameloise, in Chagny, France.
So how does The Black Swan measure up? It is actually very good.
The only option is a tasting menu for £95 (US$126) that focuses on local produce, much of it from the countryside around the pub and some of it from the garden at the back.
Banks’ parents, who are farmers, bought the North Yorkshire pub and converted it into a restaurant. Tommy Banks is head chef, while his brother James runs the front of house. The family has farmed around Oldstead for generations. The main dining room is a small upstairs space above the bar, with bare tables and a low ceiling supported by beams where you might bang your head.
When I visited last Saturday, the meal started with snacks of langoustine on a spruce skewer, with caramelised whey and fermented strawberry; a dumpling of confit chicken legs wrapped in brioche; and raw Dexter beef fed on beer, with grated chestnuts and smoked bone marrow.
The first of the four mains was cod topped with grated roasted cauliflower, served on a parsley sauce, with just the right mixture of softness and crunch. Then there was a beautiful dish of Crapaudine beetroot slowly cooked in beef fat, topped with pickled beetroot, smoked roe, goat’s curd and linseed. I personally dislike beetroot, but this had an almost toffee-like sweetness and texture, the elements perfectly balanced.
A large scallop steamed in apple juice was sliced and served with fermented celeriac and a sauce with dill oil.
James Banks, serving my table, told me the name of the farmer who had shot my fallow-deer venison, served rare with a black garlic glaze, accompanied by a taco-like Brussels sprout leaf with slow-cooked shoulder, fermented turnip and blobs of sloe puree.
(I have to watch my sugar intake these days, otherwise I would tell you about desserts such as brown butter and rhubarb; and cake made from chicory root and blackcurrant. I enjoyed a beautiful blackened apple tart with caramelised cream with walnuts.)
While these were classic combinations, the quality of the ingredients, the originality of the presentation and the assuredness of the cooking lifted them above the everyday.
OK, it’s not the kind of creative contemporary gastronomy on show at “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants”. I well remember my final meal at five-time winner El Bulli, in Spain, that consisted of 48 courses, few of which I could identify. (A crimson liquid described as hare’s blood was particularly disconcerting. It turned out to be beetroot juice, which was actually worse.)
And what did the TripAdvisor users think of the Black Swan?
“Absolutely stunning meal last night, service and food were faultless,” one said. All the dishes “were out of this world”, another said. “Probably the best meal I’ve ever had,” a third said. And: “Who would have thought that peas could taste like heaven?”
However, you can’t please everyone, at least not on TripAdvisor. One reviewer recently complained that the dining party was “sat on our own absolutely no atmosphere” and “bread was under cooked I could have rolled the inside dough into balls”. (I thought the bread was sensational.)
Banks serves farm-to-table dishes that are focused on the table and the diner rather than on abstract concepts and zany creativity.
It’s comfort food that doesn’t step too far outside the comfort zone, yet manages to avoid predictability.
It’s about the flavour of the ingredients, rather than the imaginings of the chef. It is good British cooking, taken to another level. And there is a highly imaginative wine list, too.
It may not be my pick for the best restaurant in the world, but it was one of my most enjoyable lunches of the year. It’s more than 370km from London, but I would not hesitate to go back. If only I could get a table.