Until this year Harrogate has consistently topped the poll of the happiest place to live in in the UK, a crown recently stolen by the cheeky Essex charmer, Leigh-on-Sea. Having visited both in the last twelve months and enjoyed, respectively, a Fat Rascal at Betty’s and pints of prawns and a beer down at the cockle sheds, I say it’s pretty much a dead heat. Although you can eat a Rossi’s whippy on the seafront in Leigh, which may just nudge them ahead.
One advantage that Harrogate holds is its proximity to my Aunt and Uncle’s house, making it the perfect place for us Ladies wot Lunch to visit for a refined stroll around the Valley Gardens before luncheon at stalwart on the restaurant scene, Will and Vics.
Downstairs is a curious mix half-olde worldy wine bar and half airy bistro, with a posher dining area upstairs. Popular, even on a Monday lunchtime, there was nearly no room at the inn, and we were tucked away in the cosy alcove just off the bar.
While warm and welcoming, it was also rather worrying that every conceivable surface seemed to be covered in excerpts of the menu - from 'British tapas' to a roster of daily specials. While I can see the potential for spontaneous enticement as you're enjoying a drink, even I found it exhausting to be bombarded with such a huge array of strange-sounding snacks as we were waiting to be seated.
Thankfully they also offer a simple set luch menu (with a slightly amended prix fixe for later in the evening) with two courses for an eminently reasonable ten quid - although, slightly strangely, to add a third course from said was an extra seven pounds.
Bread was the soft, sweet malty stuff that my Mum used to buy warm from the new-fangled in-store bakery at the supermarket (really feeling my age now), and that I used to eat slathered thickly with butter for breakfast as a treat. Fast forward a couple of decades and it still had the same nostalgic appeal.
Fish and chips – haddock, obvs, as we were north of the Watford Gap – was served in Whitby Whaler sized-portions and came with mushy peas and some excellent homemade tartare sauce. If I was being ultra-fussy the posh vinegar missed the point of an abrasive slosh of Sarsons, but luckily ketchup seems to taste the same, whether its out of a ramekin or squeezy bottle.
My Uncle also chose the fish, and we decided a pint of something cold and creamy was in order to help wash it down. The Theakstons Pale ale - a keg beer, based on their bottled pale ale of the 80’s, and brewed locally in Masham - proved just the ticket.
On first appearances I feared the Ewing’s chicken Milanese appeared a little dry, I had also breezily assured her it was going to be served with frites, rather than ‘fat chips’. Fortuitously both poultry and fried potatoes were very well received, the chicken in particular being excellent; hot, juicy and crisp while being a slightly sad reminder that it’s a dish not seen on more menus.
Of all the puddings, summer fruit pudding must rank right up there. Sadly, like rice pudding - which is also firmly in my top five - it's seldom seen on restaurant menus. Seemingly the idea of combining stale bread and desert seems to divide and conquer, although I don't rate it nearly as highly when made with sponge cake.
Thankfully this was properly constructed from white sliced (no pale bits showing through the carapace) and a perfect example of squidgy summeriness, stuffed with tart fruit and topped with a quenelle of Stamfrey Farm clotted cream.
The Ewing's coconut panna cotta served with a mango compote was equally summery and also very good. The panna cotta itself was clean and refreshing - although set rather like a Trump Jr comb-over than a wobbly like a Titian nude - and the mango, one of my favourite fruits, fragrant and tangy.
My aunt, not a pud fan, chose the lemon curd cheese cake to share, and promptly scoffed the physalis on top, before asking if i wanted to capture a picture of it for posterity for the blog. Here she is after replacing the papery skin on top and assuring me any eagle-eyed readers would hardly notice...
Of course, she may just have been happy to live near Harrogate; If I had Will and Vics just down the road I’d be very happy to live here too.