Tuesday, 10 May 2011

J Baker's Bistro Moderne, York

After a happy week spent paddling on the beach and eating cockles on the pier we decided to break up the journey back home by stopping off for lunch and a stroll around York Minster.  And what better place to chose after a traditional diet of fish'n'chips, fry ups and John Smiths bitter, than the slightly outre J Bakers Bistro Moderne.

Five years ago Jeff Baker decided to make a move from the Michelin-starred Pool Court in Leeds to try and make a splash here in York. A bold statement in a traditional town that seems more accustomed to olde worlde teashops and taverns than 'unusual carrots' and mock risotto. Set at the top of the cobbled Fossgate J Baker's looks simple and unassuming from the outside, all dark wood and low lighting within. There is even a chocolate tasting lounge upstairs where you can relax with chocolate treats, beers and cocktails.  Luckily the Ewing didn't have time to explore or I'd probably still be waiting for her now.

The concept of J Baker's is based on the trendy 'small plates' dining, with a small selection of main courses for those who don't want to share.  They also offer a three or five course 'grazing' option (seven course at night) a changing tasting menu, depending on what's in season.  It's an great looking menu, with some unusual touches, and I hoped it would taste as exciting as it looked.  Although tempted by the tasting option I already had my eye on the puddings.  So, not wanting to miss out on anything, we ordered four small plates to share.

Ewing managed to get her chocolate fix by ordering a Meantime Brewery Chocolate Stout, while I chose the local Black Sheep Ale.  While we supped our beers they bought a small wooden board, holding a brown paper bag and a ceramic spoon filled with mustard mayo, to the table.  On tearing the bag open a cloud of steam revealed some cute as a button new potatoes simply boiled in their skins.  It was the perfect snack; the potatoes were well seasoned,  sweet and fluffy and, dipped into the tangy mayo, they didn't hang around for long.

Thoughtfully the kitchen had divided our plates up into individual portions.  I don't know if this is standard practice, but it was a nice touch that avoided any spoon wars and made things much easier to eat.  The first dish was Celery Root Whip, a coffee cup of light as air foam with an nutty, cheesy flavour. It came with some strange, Quaver like crisps, which provided a nice texture contrast when used to scoop up the mixture.  There was also a small baby gem and pickled mushroom salad on the side to help cut through the richness.

The hand pulled bread with smoked roe and giant green olives was next.  The bread was warm and light as a feather, with a lovely chewy crust, and was soon greedily dunked in the smoked roe dip. A few celery pieces added brightness and crunch, and the olives added a salty flavour kick, although they were decidedly miniature in stature.

The Whitby crab 50/50 was the strangest dish of the afternoon.  Served again divided in two portions  each cup contained a sort of savoury trifle.  Starting with a topping of curried granola we moved into layers of semi frozen apple puree, iceberg lettuce and crab all on a bed of apple jelly.  Although not completely unpleasant it was, perhaps, an element too far for me.  The jelly and puree had a great, clean apple flavour and the contrasts of different textures and temperatures worked nicely, but overall the experience was a bit too much like finding fish in your pudding.

The Crunchy Black Pudding Pie was in fact more of a black pudding wonton.  The the smooth, spiced filling was delicious and contrasted nicely contrasted with the crunch of the outside.  The richness of the pie was cut through with some well judged accompaniments of grain mustard, a gorgeous rhubarb puree, pickled red cabbage and a salad of beets and onion.  A very pretty plate with some big flavours.

As it was the last day of our holiday, and I was having trouble deciding, we chose three puddings between us.  Unusually the Ewing passed up the chocolate options and picked 'Lemon Tops', based on the Northern ice cream and lemon sorbet confection. It featured a enthral poached meringue with curd ice cream in a pool of lemon thyme custard.  This was a lovely, light finale, complimented by a zesty citrus jelly, and some black sesame caramel for crunch

The rhubarb and custard with sarparilla caramel, gariguette strawberries and vanilla marrow.  I'm still not sure what vanilla marrow actually is, and I didn't notice its presence on the plate, but everything else was spot on.  The custard was perfect nursery food, with a lovely bitter caramel that resembled a creme brulee without the crunch.  The advertised sarsparilla was very subtle but the strawberries had a wonderful summery aroma and great flavour.  There was also a good rhubarb sorbet and a strawberry puree with chocolate nibs.  Delicious.

The Peanut Butter Cheesecake.  On an ordinary day the third pudding may have been a step too far, even for me. But when this arrived it was very hard not to lick the slate clean.  The cheesecake element was inverted, served in a coffee cup with the crunchy peanut crumbs on top.  This was a very rich pud, but had enough lightness of texture to stop it becoming too claggy and cloying.  The banana jelly was wonderful; not ordinarily a big jelly fan, this tasted a little like bubble gum and was lovely when eaten with he passionfruit ice cream.  A quirky and yummy pudding.

J Bakers was a fabulous experience.  Service was friendly and charming and I was particularly impressed by the kitchen dividing our choices into separate portions.  The menu also offers incredible value.  The celery root whip was four pounds, making each of our individual servings a just a couple of quid.  Amazing for such well judged and delicious food. The style may not be to everyone's taste; there are lots of slates and swirls and unusual flavour combinations, but at the heart of all the invention is some superbly cooked and interesting food that eats as well as it looks. 

It may be a cliché to say so but every high street should have somewhere like Baker's.  There may also be unwanted consequences, as Jay Rayner wrote in his Observer review :  'If there were more places like this in Britain's towns and cities, there would be a skip in my step and a song on my lips and a killer scar on my chest from where they'd gone in to perform the heart bypass on account of my overindulgent eating habits.'  So, although still ruing the fact they don't yet have an outpost in the Home Counties, we happily paid the, very modest, bill and ambled off to York Minster in the beautiful spring sunshine.

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