Restaurant review: The Blind Swine
Venue: 24 Swinegate, York, Saturday, January 12
The Blind Swine is probably the most talked-about new bar in the city for years. Their recently-departed cocktail-meister James Wreglesworth helped build the brand with a dazzling variety of deconstructed and reconstructed beverages that has seen hipsters homing in on the Swinegate venue for months.
In the kitchen, the magical talent of Michael O’Hare has found foodies flocking to sample his inspired combinations.
Along the way, there has been something of a food fight (mainly on TripAdvisor) about the competing merits of these new gunslingers versus the city’s more established high-quality eateries, notably J Baker’s in Fossgate. But that ‘battle’ is a fake one and detracts from the real joyous story here in our city.
For years, York was skewed to catering more for day-trippers than those seeking something other than 50 shades of pizza. Now there is real choice, and The Blind Swine is right up there at the head of the pack. Close up, even alongside, are J Baker, Cafe No 8, Barbakan, Ambiente, Melton’s and three or four other candidates, plus some fine dining experiences at two or three leading hotels. Cause for celebration.
So our weekend visit was really to see if The Blind Swine experience was more than just a flash in the pan.
And the answer is a resounding yes. So, in the spirit of the venue, let’s deconstruct. Drinks first, then the food, service and ambience.
We dined on the first night of the new 2013 tasting menu. Our nine-courses included at least four different rounds of drinks. There may have been more but this dining event was so all-engrossing and intoxicating – in a good way – that I clean forgot to make full notes, and, like Dirty Harry, in all the excitement, may have missed a round or two.
These will live long in the memory: a gin-based cocktail with lime and sorrel flavourings, and a dash of sugar syrup – the perfect start to sharpen us up; for the middle courses, an intriguing blend of weiss beer and rum, sharpened with bitters and a chilli tang, an extraordinary yet excellent drink; a take-your-breath-away vermouth (possibly Byrrh, if the music hadn’t been quite so loud I would have heard the description clearly) with a splash of maraschino juice and an orange twist; and a fine Gewurtztraminer to ease the sweet course into oblivion. Excellent complements.
There would be even more pictures to accompany this review if each course hadn’t begged to be demolished before I could snap it. Sorry! And the ones I did manage to cach don’t really do them justice. Trust me, this was course after course of visual fascination and culinary delight and great taste.
Course 1: Carrot Yes, carrot. One of the few occasions we could hear the patient and stylish-in-a-rock-band-kind-of-way waiters describing the fare.
Everything on the plate was entirely made of carrot. Just carrot. Carrot sorbet with nuggets of crisped carrot, surrounded by an intensely flavoursome soup of, hazard a guess, carrot! If this had been on a menu, I would have steered clear. Glad I didn’t have the choice. Imaginatively presented, this was a tongue-tingling revelation.
Course 2: Salmon on a bed of pulses with a paper-thin scallop crisp. Delicately cooked and sensational.
Course 3: Bread, with purple potato and black garlic butter (Peter Kay would have had a seizure). Not really a course, I hear you thinking. Wrong. The flavoured butter was yet another highlight, and worthy of the individual attention it received.
Course 4: Pea sorbet in a warm pea soup Topped off with a slice of ham. Did the waiter really say the cured ham was 17 years old?
Course 5: Don’t wince Pancreatic sweetbread of veal with chewy tomato and skin-of-the-milk crisp. As with the carrot and pea courses, I would never have ordered this from a menu. Not that I lack adventure; it just wouldn’t be a first choice. But by now, The Blind Swine had our trust, and us in their stylishly tattooed grip. As this was a first for me, I had no frame of reference, but the taste was delicate and the flesh was meltingly tender. It was a step slightly too far off-piste for one of our party of six. Not for me, though. A great discovery.
Course 6: If there was a “main” course, this was it Hanger steak (that’s the bit under the rib, between the brisket and the flank, the cut that butchers used to keep for themselves), with parsley on chip-like strips of gnocchi. As tasty a piece of steak as one will ever eat. Perfect.
Course 7: Cheese platter, with honey Four fine choices including Blacksticks Blue, with that fab Gewurtztraminer.
Course 8: Buerre-noisette ice cream, cinder toffee topping Served with a crusted sponge cake, that could even have been “pan de Spagna”, but by now on the edge of foodie delirium and fighting the background noise, the description was lost.
Course 9: Coffee and truffles Percolated at the table. Tea for the insomniacs.
Very attentive waitress who could have stepped out of the screen from Amelie. Unfussy, unobtrusive and charming. Food delivery was an “event”, with the head chef and two colleagues each delivering to two diners in our party of six. Who can blame them for their obvious pride. If I had made one dish as good as any of these courses I would be all over Facebook with it.
I’m going to be brief here, because, although there are negatives, the food and drink experience largely outweighs them.
Either the table was too high or the seats were too low. Though at the end of the meal it didn’t seem to matter too much. But a slightly disconcerting start.
The dining area is not clearly defined. Of course, it’s where the tables are, but this is essentially a bar, and the restaurant needs what architects refer to as “defensible space”. Perhaps screens. That would also help protect diners against the cold January air whistling in from the doorway.
I didn’t care for the decor much. Stark like a rock venue, and a tad gloomy, with classic Marshall and Orange speakers wedged into the walls; it felt like the opposite of the excitement that was happening on the plates.
The music policy is rock (we got Hendrix, Stones, Jam}. No problem with that. But the volume is a real difficulty, and not just for older clients. We could hardly hear the waiter’s description of the courses. Food-lovers are discovering this place; they want to know what is on offer. It’s not hard to fix.
We paid £42.50 per person, and all the drinks above were included. We ordered a bottle of wine (approx £18) when we arrived, but if we had known the extent of the included drinks, we would easily have done without it. For food and service of this quality, the price is spot on.
The bad news? If you want to go, you’ll have to wait several months. We booked up again immediately after our meal. We took the earliest date offered. Can hardly wait till May. Just in case, I’ll bring earplugs.
Update, May 3, 2013
We returned at the weekend for Round Two. Delighted to say that the minor quibbles listed above have been addressed. Our large central table was the right height. The music was interesting, but not overpowering, and we could hear every word of the waiter’s announcements at the start of each course.
Now with more tables laid out, the dining area was much more clearly defined. Without the bitter January blasts, heating was not an issue. But come next winter, having seen this restaurant’s attention to detail, I am sure that will not be a problem again.
Just one course remained from the above menu (the excellent pea sorbet in pea soup). Only one course was not to my liking, uncooked langoustine less than six hours since it was landed. Undeniably fresh, and a great sauce with an undertow of sweetness, but the consistency was somewhat jelly-like. For something that had clearly taken a lot of thought and care, that was the only (mild) disappointment.
I’m not going to spoil it for you by detailing the rest of the entire menu, as part of the joy of the Blind Swine is letting Michael O’Hare and his team surprise you. But a couple of highlights… Drinks: Soured gin with ‘moss’ flavouring. Trust me… you’ll wonder why no one else is serving this; and an Old Fashioned cocktail served with cigar smoke. Not kidding, as a non-smoker who loves the aroma of a fine cigar, when it is not overwhelming, this was a sensational – if somewhat gimmicky – trick. But by then we were in a great mood, and, having entrusted our evening to the Blind Swine, we were ready for anything.
The food highlight, for me, was a perfectly cooked piece of goose breast with morsels of duck, plus the best foie gras I have eaten outside Périgord. Don’t scream… it is “ethical foie gras” (supplied by Yorkshire’s R and J Butchers). Ethical foie gras? No force-feeding, they just have very greedy geese, the chef assured us. Undoubtedly one of the best courses I’ve ever enjoyed.
This is a restaurant that started near the top and is getting better. We re-booked immediately.
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