Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Black Swan, Oldstead

To celebrate (or commiserate) the fact that D and I first met thirteen years ago to the day, on Good Friday we pootled off to The Black Swan at Oldstead, it being some time since we enjoyed a Yorkshire Michelin star. The Black Swan has built quite the local reputation over the last few years but its profile was probably raised significantly by the fact that the extremely easy on the eye head chef, Tommy Banks, appeared on the BBC’s Great British Menu last year and cooked a dish at the final banquet.

If you like your foodie destinations remote and scenic, then this one will appeal. The village of Oldstead appears to consist of the restaurant, the house in which the restaurant guests stay, and a few sheep. We did catch sight of a couple of runners on the surrounding lanes who presumably came from somewhere, but it was certainly not obvious as to where. Oh, and further Instagram opportunities abound just down the road, where can be found a picturesque ruined abbey.

There is a relaxed bar area downstairs with a fireplace and a broad sweep of gleaming bar (sadly no cat – every country restaurant should have a cat) and then upstairs the restaurant proper spread across two rooms. It had a lovely, relaxed feel to it – well spaced, well sized tables (terribly important), an eclectic playlist that was set at just the right volume and the most charming set of waiting staff I’ve come across in a long time.

Gin and tonic
And what of the food? Well, the surrounding gardens are the source of many of the ingredients and the Black Swan’s whole ethos appears to be very much tied to local, seasonal eating. These terms are in danger of becoming clichéd but I certainly got the sense that, here at least, they were genuinely meant and that the kitchen strives to make the best of the land on which it sits. GBM fans may remember that Banks’s banquet dish was a celebration of the art of preserving and, sure enough, throughout the place were scattered jars of pickles and gently infusing fruit schnapps. The main constituents of one of the dishes, beetroot cooked in beef fat, had been harvested months earlier and then stored in a traditional clamp. Little things like this, that serve to root a restaurant’s food in place and tradition, are very important to me.

It may be another cliché, but I sensed a definite hint of Scandi in the style and sensibility of the cooking. Some of the flavour profiles reminded me of dishes I ate at Noma, as did the often sparse yet elegant presentation. This was particularly true of the sweet courses which eschewed traditional, hearty British desserts for something lighter, brighter and verging on the savoury at times. I adored the Douglas Fir parfait with sheep’s milk sorbet which sparkled on the tongue; the petit-four, a cake made from artichoke, chicory root and thyme was slightly less successful: it was interesting rather than delicious and I don’t necessarily want my cake to be interesting.

Douglas fir parfait
Slightly unfortunately, the high point of the meal came, for us both, with the very first mouthful – an amuse bouche (thus, doll-sized) tartlet of smoked eel and Lincolnshire Poacher. This was a single bite of utter deliciousness and set the bar so very high that none of the subsequent dishes managed to surpass it. A few came close: the afore mentioned Douglas Fir dessert, a venison tartare with onion puree which danced on the edge of being too darkly rich, a hazelnut and chicory parfait lollipop. It was also nice to see a chicken main course; served with a selection of aliums and draped with new season wild garlic, it was a salutary reminder that chicken, when responsibly reared and beautifully cooked, is a heavenly thing. It missed out on the top spot though because we both felt that some sort of additional element on the plate was required for perfection – I actually felt the lack of some sort of crispy, salty little potato element, but then I’m always slightly sad to see a plate without carbs.

Smoked eel tartlet 
Venison tartare
Minor quibbles aside, the general consensus was that this was very good indeed. To be honest, I’m not sure that it pips 64 Degrees in Brighton to the Year’s Best Meal (so far) but that is a question of personal taste rather than execution and there is no doubt that there was some serious skills on display here. Some of the most incredible meals I have ever eaten – my two favourite experiences remain Eleven Madison Park in New York and Five Senses in Barcelona – were made so because I believe that something genuinely exciting happens when a chef manages to look both forward and backwards, inwards and outwards. I think that Tommy Banks is such a chef, which, it therefore follows, means that The Black Swan has the potential to be such a restaurant. It is not there yet, but since he is the youngest holder of a Michelin star in the country, he has bags of time on his side and an establishment that is perfectly placed to enable him to achieve exciting things. Definitely one to watch.


  1. Your restaurant reviews remind me of how very unadventurous I am. You had me at gin and tonic, but by the time I read 'eel' I got squeamish. I respect and admire your far more adventurous spirit.


    1. It might be adventurous spirit...but it might well be sheer greed! And there are things that I think I'd struggle with - tripe and brains spring immediately to mind. Plus, I can't countenance rice pudding at all. Abysmal stuff! x