Van Zeller, Harrogate



 The backstory here is that the chef-patron, Tom van Zeller (a distant relation of Cristiano van Zeller, the Douro and Port producer), has returned to his roots after working in many starred places around the world.  Now, almost within spitting distance of Betty's tearoom, where he began his career, he has opened the eponymous Van Zeller restaurant in a quiet semi-pedestrianised side street in Harrogate, with backing from David Moore of Pied à Terre.

The restaurant has a very nice relaxed yet not too informal atmosphere, the staff are excellent and the food is pretty darn good too.  I am in love with the wall lights.  My one criticism of the design is that the banquettes are about 3 inches to tall, putting you in a slightly unsettling feeling of looking down on your food as if you're a cat about to pounce from tree.

The only problem is the prices, which can feel a bit steep, though fortunately Harrogate does not seem to be too put off.

Latest review (Feb 2011):
I had another very good lunch at Van Zeller in Harrogate again today.

I was drawn in by a mention in their newsletter of a 3-course lunch for £13. Naturally it ends up costing rather more than that, especially once you insert a couple of courses off the à la carte.

The £13 lunch is a no-choice menu, which might account for the remarkably few tables that were having it. Though, for me, it was a very appealing selection. £13 seemed such a bargain, that it would be rude not to include another course, taken off the à la carte. Doing so also got me an amuse, that the one table having just the set lunch didn't get: indeed they asked the maitre d' what it was that everyone else but them was getting ... 

The amuse was a demitasse of butternut squash velouté with chives and popped rice. Butternut squash velouté is getting a bit ubiquitious as an appetiser, as white bean cappucino with truffle oil was in the 1990s. But it does make a good soup, and this was a particularly good example, with quite a floral note alongside the chives, which made me wonder whether there might have a been a touch of lemongrass in it. I loved the popped rice too: a great texture and a subtly nutty flavour.

As previously, crusty bread was mad hot from the oven. It's about the only thing they don't make themselves, and I think it shows, as, while there's nothing particularly wrong with it, it's a bit ordinary. Unfortunately the waitress didn't know what the difference was betweeen the two types of roll other than that one looked larger to her and when she looked closer one had seeds. Somehow she managed to miss that one might be white and one brown. This was the only bum note in the service, which is now overseen by a new French maitre d'hôtel.

The first course on the set lunch was a pair of generously-sized quenelles of salt cod, which came with some very good croûtes, blobs of red pepper purée/dressing and other blobs of, I think, yoghurt. The brandade was nice and light with well-balanced flavours. Pretty to look at. A nice, light, balanced dish. One more croûte would have helped balance the brandade to croûte ratio.

My inserted extra starter came next. £9 bought me a plate of winter truffles and turnips. That doesn't sound great. But it was an outstanding dish that genuinely vaut le détour.
Some chopped pink grapefruit is topped with chunks of maple glazed turnip, then a lapsang souchong epsuma, then a very delicate hazelnut sablé, all topped off with three generous slices of a winter truffle that must have been tennis ball sized. Some yellow tomato sauce blobs added a sweeter fruitiness to counterpoint the grapefruit. Actually the grapefruit and turnip was a really winning combination on its own, but taking the whole thing together, it was an absolute triumph of perfectly balanced flavours, scents and textures. Dish of the year. (So far. But it's going to be hard to beat.) Vegetarian too.

Back to the set lunch. Pigeon with colcannon, pea shoots and parsnip crisps. This was quite a plain, simple-looking dish on the plate, and you can see why the maitre d' had upsold a couple of vegetble side dishes to the next table. A single, though large pigeon breast was beautifully cooked and served with a red wine sauce with decent depth. The colcannon was perfectly seasoned.

Back to the à la carte now. I fancied a bit of cheese, and £8 didn't sound too bad when you consider the price of cheese. Five cheeses were served: Golden Cross, a Staffordshire goat, Brie, Yorkshire blue and powerful Mull Cheddar. All were à point, the brie and Staffs goats especially so, and all at a proper serving temperature. I thought the cheese was let down by the accomanying stack of those cardboardy octagonal oatcakes things. The home-made chutney that was also on the plate was great, but a bit powerful, I thought.

The dessert on the menu was a slab of pretty good parkin, sweet and sticky, served with new season's Yorkshire rhubarb. Not a bad dessert, and quite an improvement on desserts on previous visits.

A few glasses of wine (an ugni blanc, a primitivo and a pacherenc vic bilh doux) were all fine, but just basic house wine standard. The ugni blanc was decent value at just £3.95, though £6.10 for the primitivo was a bit steep.  With service (but no coffee today), the £13 lunch ended up at just shy of £60.  Not that I begrudge a penny of that.  This is cooking of a very high order.
(February 2011)

Brief report of a meal in August 2010:

Off the table d'hôte menu, a dish which combined gutsy with modern Michelin-striving technique - slices of morteau sausage served hot, pickled chanterelles, tiny capers, pea shoots and a rim of morteau sausage dust (made by freezing it, then shaving it, then drying it). Lovely dish. Great for them too, with virtually imperceptible ingredient costs and a price tag of £5.

Crab salad was two generous quenelles of very fresh white meat with some other stuff. Nice that it was not bound heavily with mayonnaise - if indeed there was any mayonnaise at all.

For my main off the TdH (with £7 supplement) came a huge slab of wild Sea Trout served on a bed of spring cabbage and with Tadcaster peas (bit underdone, as is often the case in restaurants, which use it to prove they're fresh) & broad beans, and a very fresh tasting white wine velouté.

Another generous portion, this time of rump of spring lamb, came with samphire, an alarming dollop of red pepper purée, powdered black olives, a very, very thin crisp potato rosti and a nice jus. Some of the best lamb I've tasted in a long time, and beautifully cooked. The slick of red pepper purée look alarming, but worked very well with the lamb, as did the olive powder, which I think worked better than slices of olives would have done, as you had all the concentrated flavour without the texture of olives, which might have been a little odd in the context of the rest of the dish. The micron-thick rösti was good, large like a large, lacy potato crisp, made by making as thin a rösti as possible and then baking it between two heavy baking trays (the way perverts cook bacon).

Once again, desserts were a bit disappointing compared to what had gone before. Apricot clafoutis was fine, the batter neither too heavy nor particularly light, the half an apricot seemed a bit grudging, but the whole was really lifted by a gorgeous heavily vanilla-laden crème Chantilly.

Lemon and pine kernel parfait was lemony and had lots of pine kernels, but was served a bit too cold and hard.

Superb espresso with top notch chocolates again.

It's still a touch pricey (with a bottle of Van Zeller Rosé it was £100 for two), but for the standard of food and service it's not bad value at all.

An earlier review (May 2010):
There's a table d'hôte at four courses for £20 (though one of those courses is an amuse bouche), an à la carte and a six-course tasting menu for £48 (evening only).

The immediate thing I noticed about the menus is the overlap between alc and tdh and that one dish at each course of the 3-3-3 tdh carried a supplement. These three dishes were also on the alc, and the supplements brought the cost up to the alc price.  I guess the chef sees these three as his signature dishes or something?  But it just seems wrong to have an £11.50 supplement for a main course on a £20 menu.  If you have all three tdh dishes which carry a supplement, you end up paying more in supplements (£22.50) than for the menu.

For me the tdh could also have been better balanced - there was a rabbit dish for both starter and main course, and foie gras in two dishes too.

The waiter brought some bread rolls and had to warn me that they were very hot. My god they were hot!  I could hardly pick them up.  They were so hot and so freshly baked that I think it spoiled them a bit, as the interior of the well-risen rolls, seemed largely to deflate one the roll was broken open.  

The amuse bouche was a demi-tasse of asparagus soup that was so hot, it made the bread seem chilly.  Burned my delicate lip it did. :(  After a good few minutes when it had cooled down to a safe temperature, it revealed itself to be a decent, lightly textured soup, though served blind, I'd have probably guessed at pea, rather than asparagus.

But things improved dramatically with the next dish, of quail.  This was a very pretty plate  of roast breast, confit leg and a fried egg, served with ham and peas.  I'm sure the waiter said Italian peas, which sounds a bit daft - I should have quizzed him further. The peas came both gently braised and puréed, and there was a generous amount of a gorgeous stock based game sauce, that needed the fortunately now cooled bread to ensure every last smidge was mopped up.

Next came a foie gras dish: a very generous tranche of seared foie gras served with semi dried grapes, pine nuts, wood sorrel and a sultana puree.  The liver was perfectly cooked, and the whole dish was well nigh perfect, except that the smear of port reduction brushed onto the plate had fused itself to the hot plate so that really only the potwasher was going to be able to get it off, and that with some scrubbing!

For main course. I had a marvellous rabbit dish.  There was the loin, roasted, really cute, tiny french-trimmed chops, liver and kidneys. There was one piece of the loin (possibly the true fillet?) that was a little overdone, but everything else was cooked perfectly.  Alongside the rabbit bits were some carrots, carrot puree, a barley risotto and another great sauce enriched with foie gras butter. Quite possibly the same base sauce as with the quail ... though despite looking the same, you could just detect the added richness and flavour of the foie gras. Possibly just a little too much of the barley in relation to the rabbit, but then they have Yorkshire appetites to cater for.

Dessert, unfortunately, was a little disappointing. Pistachio cake with Matkin's strawberries and crème cru.  All fine, but it was just a small wedge of open textured green sponge, with one strawberry cut in two and a puddle of what seemed to be crème fraiche. Nothing wrong with it, but just a bit too unexciting in comparison to what had gone before.

Very good espresso came with superlative chocolates.  The chocolates come from a London chocolatier, whose name I've forgotten, but were some of the best I've had in a long time.  One had a lemon filling (I should have inspected it more closely to see if it was ganache or cream), the other was astoundingly good: salted licorice. Absolutely ideal as chocolate with coffee.  A powerful yet overwhelming flavour that stopped you in your tracks while the brain struggled to come to terms with it.  Delicious, but you wouldn't want more than one.
(May 2010)

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Last updated: 27 April 2009