BLISS. A quaint cottage with a roaring fire. Armchairs to sink into. A large empty jeroboam of Pouilly Fume on the windowsill. Oh and leatherbound menus, too, which is the real giveaway. It’s definitely a restaurant.
Souffles are a Gueller speciality. I went for a dense dark chocolate pave with morello cherry sorbet and wasn’t disappointed.
There’s no snow on the Box Tree yet, but there’s a scent of Christmas repasts to come about the place (lunch £90 inc champagne and canapes, if you must ask). It’s Children in Need night, harbinger of goodwill, so outside in the dark Pudsey Bears roam. Inside we feel safe until...
Is that the clanking of a man chained to the stove – the Ghost of Chefs Past? Marco in his freedom fighter headgear from Kitchen Burn Out From Hell or whatever it was called. You sell your soul to the Devil in return for three Michelin stars and an untidy aftermath as a restaurateur/personality, then one day, woooooooo, you return to your Yorkshire roots, sort of.
A year ago Marco Pierre White took a stake in the Box Tree, Ilkley, where he made his start before conquering the culinary world. I’ve come back too, for a night, to see what influence he’s had on this old stager. It’s not immediately obvious – there are no signed Gaddafi lookalike portraits – as we are ushered into a lost domain of large bone china dogs behind opaque leaded windows, muted crooner muzak... and Service with a capital S.
We expect to be the proud recipients of some intricate amuse bouches but breadsticks, mini-gougeres and olives are our lot. Somehow you expect more fuss from a place that flaunts its Michelin star status under the stewardship of chef Simon Gueller. Still prices certainly recognise it’s a cut above Ilkley rivals Betty’s and, I kid you not, a wine bar called Bar Ta’t.
The six-strong Menu Gourmand was available for £65 a head with optional sommelier’s wine choice at £27.50 per person. We opted for the Menu a la Carte, three courses and a ‘pre-appetiser’ for a set £55 (which doesn’t quite add up to ‘a la carte’ as the rest of the world knows it, but hey!). The wine list reaches extraordinary heights, in all senses. But at the more modest French regional end our Madiran Vieilles Vignes Capmartin (£35) hit the spot.
This herby red was a perfect accompaniment to my main (picture at the top of the article), the sublime squab pigeon ‘en vessie”, puy lentils, beetroot and boudin noir tian, jus a la fleur de thyme. Exquisite on the tongue, exquisite on the plate, even better on the palate. My dish of the year so far and it’s not been a bad year, particularly in London.
En Vessie could just have easily been ‘en papillote’ or, as they still say in Pudsey (the Leeds suburb, not the bear) cooked in a bag. Squab is domestically reared pigeon, like rabbit, guaranteeing a certain level of tenderness, unlike the wild alternative.
Mine was a plump pink domestic goddess of a bird, breast and legs comfortable on their bed of earthy puy lentils in a perfectly arranged marriage with the intense thyme jus (poured affectionately into every cranny from a dinky little white jug, which I like).
The accompaniment was no let-down either. Tian traditionally means a shallow dish of vegetables, usually a gratin. Here it came in the form of mini-towers, two of them. Base was dense beetroot, topped with a round of mealy black pudding and strewn with beetroot batons and micro-salad.
My dining partner was seduced by the special – a 40 day hung, air-dried beef fillet entangled in a vast menu description that took in truffle jus, foie gras, purple garlic, Japanese artichoke and much more. Like Chancery in Dickens’ Bleak House (our Christmas Carol moment had passed) easier to get into than out of. The lauded beef lacked taste. The artichoke was a long scorzonera-like root that tasted of carrot.
Foie gras again, Michelin man’s comfort staple, underpinned my starter. A terrine slab thereof, dotted with prunes, quince in pureed blobs encircling said treat, as Dickens in ebullient turkey-purchasing for skinflint mood might have proclaimed. Prunes and quince succulently right. There were toasted slices of Poilane bread to scoop it all up. My attachment to my driving licence precluded me teaming it with a shot of Monbazillac, which was a shame.
Across the table the seared hand dived scallops starter came in a classic combination with a difference. Roast celeriac puree had the savoury edge on the usual cauliflower pairing (even the Hairy Bikers were doing that combo on telly last week). Cubes of smoked eel and Braeburn apple with a truffle oil vinaigrette lifted it into another dimension.
A slice of autumn truffle had floated in the middle our pre-starter, a foamy haricot veloute in a cup – the purpose of which always defeats me. Before you really start to enjoy it it’s over. Like sex really.
Souffles are a Gueller speciality, so I was tempted by the apricot example on the dessert list (the spiced pineapple tarte tatin with a cream cheese sorbet also yelled signature dish) but I went for a dense dark chocolate pave with morello cherry sorbet and wasn’t disappointed.
That was until I tasted my companion’s creme brulee with jus Granny Smith. The vanilla-rich centre-piece was served outside its ramekin dish, in a puddle of squeezed apple with dried apple rings forming a crisp palisade. As lovely as it looked.
Petit fours were served from a large wooden box by a lanky lad back in the Lounge of the Large China Dogs. I was sorry to say goodbye to the dining room’s faded Victorian genre prints which in the absence of a real buzz about the place had trapped my attention. I always like the ones that feature a gent taking to drink in bad tavern company. I can identify.
I’m sure they were all here in the days when young Marco was a Leeds ragamuffin in the kitchens, peeling knobbly jerusalem artichokes to turn into mousselines and the like for the West Riding Posh. I’d like to say Wool Barons but even by the late Seventies the worsted was wearing thin.
The Box Tree has had its ups and downs since those heady days as one of the inaugural 25 Michelin-starred restaurants in this country after the French eventually deigned to recognise us. By 1978, under Malcolm Reid and Colin Long, it had gained two stars and a reputation for chintz and china overload in the decor.
Perhaps it was residual affection for all this that led Marco to buy into what he has described as his ‘spiritual home’ despite his high profile foreswearing of fine dining. “The publicity generated has been immense with a huge increase in hits to our website,” general manager Andrew Pratt tells me, while admitting the great man only makes occasional visits.
Pratt, an exemplary front of house man formerly at Sharrow Bay, so he too must share the affinity with camped up dining rooms and former glories. Not that the Box Tree is resting on those. In 2004 Simon Gueller and wife Rena took over. Within months it had regained its Michelin star and stellar reputation, which it has retained since, while shedding some of the flock wallpaper.
For anoraks, fortysomething Simon is the only chef to have held stars at three separate restaurants in Yorkshire, first Rascasse, then the ill-fated eponymous Gueller, now here. He went to the same school, Allerton Grange High, as Marco who, I imagine must have looked after his younger pal in the playground. At 18 Simon worked for Marco in London. So this really is Blood Brothers–The Sequel.
I’m not sure who was cooking during our visit. I should have asked. Rising Yorkshire star Dan Birk has been hired from Devonshire Fell as head chef to Simon’s executive. The whole menu read – and tasted – very Simon Gueller. As it should. He’s the man who has properly restored this gem’s culinary reputation.
Now if he could only ditch the china displays and the dull paintings. But would Marco let him?
You can follow Neil Sowerby on @AntonEgoManc
ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL AND PAID FOR BY CONFIDENTIAL
The Box Tree, Ilkley
35-37 Church Street Ilkley, West Yorkshire LS29 9DR, 01943 608484
sorry last few visits the food was very dissapointing need to do better than one free glass of…Read more
Cool post very informative. I just found your site and read through a few posts although this is my…Read more
This is another good reason to travel. This restaurant is a place to go to. Nice chinese restaurant…Read more
Malaysian tea? I know that India and China are known for that, but I suppose that places like…Read more