You can find Vennell’s just off Masham’s spacious Market Place, behind a smart, maroon-painted frontage whose large display window suggests that a century ago it was a shop. So far, so chic.
Inside, though, the decor is surprisingly muted, with walls and carpets in sullen hues of beige, and a central light fitting that would be more at home in a 1970s tearoom than a 21st-century fine-dining establishment. The walls are currently hung with landscape paintings, presumably by some local artist, which to my eye appear to be executed with little enthusiasm and less talent.
But there’s a lovely warm welcome and, downstairs, a pleasant subterranean nook (with a slightly better grade of artwork) where you can sup a pre-dinner drink as you squint at the menu.
Not much scrutiny required, mind you, because it’s a brief one: just four choices in each category. But that’s always a good sign, I think. There’s a decent wine list, too, with a variety of reasonably priced options available, several by the glass.
Back upstairs, at our small, neat table, we tucked into crisp home-baked rolls and a complimentary offering: a tomato consommé laced with truffle oil. Served in a coffee cup, it was the rich golden colour of summer evening sunlight, and exquisite in its fruity intensity.
The arrival of our starters was the cue for a round of appreciative gasps. Presented with a confidence and flair entirely at odds with the so-so decor of the dining room, these were little short of awesome. Mine was mackerel – thrillingly fresh – with gooseberries. It was a clever interpretation of a classic combination, with the gooseberry manifesting in three different forms: poached whole fruit, a fruity foam and a gloriously piquant rectangle of cool, green jelly. Salty, emerald-green samphire and crispy capers chipped in with additional tastes and textures.
Equally impressive was Piers’ venison and foie gras carpaccio – impossibly thin roundels of lightly seared, pepper-crusted venison with a hub of melting foie gras in their centres. Topped with lightly marinated julienne vegetables, Parmesan shavings and a shake of truffle oil, this was pretty much the perfect starter: fresh, light and a judicious balance of intoxicating flavours.
With the bar set this high, Chef Jon Vennell was going to have to pull out all the stops to equal this performance with the mains. Well, those stops were indeed pulled out. My confit of pork belly was dreamily unctuous underneath its deafeningly crunchy crackling. It was served on pak choi, and accompanied by a poached pear and tiny fried mushrooms. Oh, and crisp florets of cauliflower and a creamy cauliflower purée. As regards these two interpretations of cauliflower, I like Chef’s thinking: serve the same ingredient in multiple forms and you increase the range of textures without overcomplicating the flavours. It’s a trick he pulled off several times during the meal.
He did it in Piers’ main course too, in which duck breast was partnered with whole chick peas and also a chick pea pâté. The gamey, meltingly soft duck got a further boost into the culinary stratosphere from a rich port sauce and some fragrant fennel.
Readers will know that I seldom manage to reach the end of a meal without discovering some shortcoming, however minor, to complain about. In this case,
however, cunning Chef Vennell got the better of me, because our desserts were as faultless as the rest of the meal had been.
Mine was an exuberant concoction of summer fruits in vibrant cider jelly, mouthwatering vanilla ice cream, meringue, praline wafers and space dust. Yes, I know everybody’s using space dust these days, but in this context it really did work.
Piers’ lemon trio was equally rewarding, albeit slightly less frivolous. Creamy-sharp lemon posset, a lemon mousse with the luscious crunch of toasted pine nuts and a hunk of good old-fashioned lemon sponge all added up to the perfect conclusion for a summer evening’s meal.
So let’s delve into the economics of it. Discounting drinks, minerals, coffees and so on, the food itself – three splendid courses for two people – added up to a few pennies under £56, that’s to say £28 per head.
Now let me be straight. This one is a no-brainer. Three courses of quite exceptional food – cleverly conceived, flawlessly executed and stylishly presented – plus friendly, efficient service to boot. If anyone knows where in the North East you can better this, do please tell me. Because at this price, people, you are pretty much robbing poor Jon and Laura Vennell.
I gather that earlier this year Vennell’s won a Michelin ‘Bib Gourmand’, a commendation awarded for providing great food at reasonable prices. And rightly so. The place is unlikely to win any interior design awards, but with food this good I don’t intend to fuss about the surroundings; let’s leave that to the city poseurs. Wherever Mr and Mrs Vennell choose to serve their gorgeous grub – even if it’s in their garden shed – I’ll be there. And so should you be.