Yorkshire Life Lunch - Black Swan Hotel, Helmsley.
Guests gather at the high-flying Black Swan Hotel in Helmsley. Jo Haywood joins them PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY BULMER
It's been a two-year climb to the top for owners and staff at The Black Swan Hotel in Helmsley, but it's been well worth the hike. The view from the summit of the Yorkshire hospitality industry must be very satisfying indeed.
'The aim of the new owners was to take the hotel out of the hands of big business and make it into a local country inn of quality,' explained general manager Chris Falcus. 'It's still very much a work in progress - the bedrooms need refurbishing and the bar area needs work - but we have achieved an incredible transformation in a relatively short time.'
Among the accolades the hotel has picked up along the way are three AA rosettes for food, taking it into the top 10 per cent of restaurants in the UK, four stars for its accommodation and the hard-fought title of Yorkshire Life Hotel of the Year 2008-2009.
Awards are all very well, but the best way of gauging a hotel's success is through bookings. In that respect, The Black Swan is once again peering down from a very lofty peak. 'We are getting more bookings than ever before,' said Chris. 'And unlike some businesses, we're not afraid of being busy.We want a full restaurant and high room occupancy, even if that means we have to turn people away.'
The restaurant was very full indeed for the Yorkshire Life lunch as our guests gathered for a truly memorable meal in great company. A clever, creamy cannelloni of smoked salmon and mascarpone set the tone for the high quality fare to follow. Super-soft pork belly under a salty crisp shell of crackling was a treat that elicited a Mexican wave of satisfied murmurs that swept the dining room in an 'Mmmmm' of approval. And a triple pudding that married pleasantly bitter chocolate mousse with a delicately flavoured parfait and a pistachio financier cake (yes, there were jokes about the nuts being 'credit crunchy') that was butter soft on the inside but with a wonderfully crisp feel under the dessert fork ended proceedings on a suitably sweet high.
The meal was created by talented senior sous chef Clare Tempest and her team. They met the challenge with great aplomb after former head chef Andrew Burton left to join the brigade at The Star in Harome. 'Our restaurant is absolutely vital to our success,' said Chris.
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'Our speciality is modern British food using quality local produce.We use ingredients so you can still taste the quality in the finished dish. It's not our aim to mess about with food; to take a great piece of pork and make it look like a butterfly for no apparent reason.We want our food to be like the best home-cooked meal you've ever tasted but could never cook.'
The Black Swan has dominated Helmsley's Market Place for centuries and has become a local landmark as well as a top class restaurant destination. It's actually three buildings in one: a black and white house on the left of the terrace, a Georgian house in the middle and an Elizabethan building on the right.
The hotel has played a prominent role in how the town has developed over the years, and is still proving to be a draw for tourists, weddings and shooting parties, all of which bring extra revenue to Helmsley. But this doesn't mean it's an entirely problemfree relationship. 'When two parties are so dependent on each other there's bound to be a bit of friction every now and then,' said Chris.
'But basically people are very proud of the hotel and we are proud to call Helmsley our home.' The hotel owners and staff are not happy to simply sit back and admire their achievements though. The Black Swan is a continual work in progress, heading ever onwards and upwards. Among its latest challenges has been the successful launch of its own tearoom and patisserie, offering quality dining at high tea prices.
'The patisserie has been a resounding success for us, but this doesn't mean we'll be opening more offshoots like a deli or our own butcher,' said Chris. 'We don't want to dilute the quality in any way.We want to do what we do well. It's a simple ethos, but it works.'