IF YOU are planning to refurbish a hotel and its restaurant, having a celebrity chef on your doorstep is no bad thing.
This was the happy situation in which the Talbot Hotel in Malton found themselves last year when they performed a makeover on their establishment.
Chef James Martin, star of Saturday Kitchen and – away from the oven – Strictly Come Dancing, was born in Malton.
In fact he used to pass the Talbot every day as a boy, and when he decided to return to his roots to open a second restaurant (he has one in Leeds and has now opened a third in Manchester), becoming executive chef at the former 17th-century hunting lodge seemed the perfect fit.
He said: “I wanted to come back home and I’ve bought a house locally so this was the perfect opportunity for me.
“I’m putting my heart and soul into this project and I’ve been visiting local suppliers and small artisan producers, even people who make jams and chutneys in their garden shed, to find produce I can use in the restaurant.”
However, a fantastic kitchen and a television chef are not all that the Talbot Hotel has to offer, as my wife and I were soon to discover.
Their motto promises “Sport. Health. Fine food. Three good reasons to visit the Talbot – then and now,” and the sporting heritage of a building erected four hundred years ago as a hunting lodge is still evident, with shooting magazines in the bedroom and guests happily heading out for the day in their Wellington boots.
I hope I haven’t given the impression of some muddy hikers’ bar here, as the truth is anything but.
The Talbot is a traditional country house hotel, but is very grand, with a mixture of modern and classic decor creating a cosy, satisfying and warming atmosphere.
We were warmly greeted on our arrival and shown up a gorgeous staircase to our second-floor room.
Our accommodation for the night was one of the spacious Ryedale rooms, with an enormous sofa, an even larger, sumptuously comfortable bed and a neat en-suite which boasted a cracking shower.
During the restoration – of the hotel, not the English monarchy – the Talbot created 26 individual bedrooms, each capturing the elegant spirit of the property, and all set to established designer Vivien Greenock’s imaginative interior designs.
We made our way down to the bar where, amid warm hospitality and great selection of wines, spirits, cask ales and classic cocktails, we were met by the hotel manager, who treated us to some olives while we waited to be shown through to the restaurant.
Into James Martin’s realm now, we were shown to what was in my opinion the best table on offer, in the bay window overlooking the grounds.
After keeping our appetites at bay temporarily with a selection of sourdough, wholemeal or white bread, we were surprised by a treat of amuse-bouche.
These were elegant black olive flatbread with a garlic and herb-infused oil dip served in a dainty tea cup.
This whet our appetites nicely for our starters, which for me was home-cured organic salmon with pickled ginger, charred cucumber, spring onions and squid ink quaver.
My wife had the grilled East Coast mackerel with potato noodles, cucumber, seaweed and roast mackerel consommé – and I immediately had food envy.
Luckily, I was allowed to try some, and was not disappointed.
For the main course, I chose more wisely, plumping for the wonderfully presented Waterford Farm’s new-season lamb, with Jerusalem artichokes, charred leeks, crispy sweetbreads and mustard seeds.
And I can say, hand on heart, it was the best lamb I have ever had in my life, and one of the best things I have ever tasted.
My wife had the organic corn-fed chicken breast, with haricot beans, wild mushroom cream, purple sprouting broccoli and garden cabbage.
She said it was good, but I doubt it can have been as nice as my lamb.
There was just room for dessert – for me, dark chocolate and rapeseed oil delice with pistachio cream, while my wife had English strawberries with charentais melon and chilled strawberry soup.
Both were served with a useful palette-cleansing sorbet and both were fantastic.
Throughout, the service was attentive and informative, and we were recommended a Bordeaux to accompany our starters and a Rioja with the main course, again, both excellent.
We retired to the bar afterwards for a single-malt Dalwhinnie, and were treated once again, this time with home-made fudge and little miniature cakes.
The VIP service did not stop at our bedroom door either, as we got coffee delivered to our room.
Breakfast the next morning was of the high quality we had come to savour, and nothing less than you would expect from one of the country’s top chefs.