Claudia Blake visits
Simonstone Hall, near Hawes
Head due north from Hawes towards Thwaite and the road quickly gains height as it prepares to squeeze itself between the windswept slopes of Great Shunner Fell and Abbotside Common. Wedged into this rising ground, and taking in the breathtaking panoramic views back across Upper Wensleydale, is Simonstone Hall.
With its sharp gables, mullioned windows, miniature clock tower, neat topiary and resident peacocks, Simonstone makes an exotic and rather magical addition to a landscape that otherwise consists of rough pasture, squat barns and scattered farms. There has been a dwelling on this site for centuries, extended and remodelled over successive generations. Nowadays, however, Simonstone operates as a luxury country house hotel, with facilities for weddings, conferences and, of course, fine dining.
Non-residents can eat in either the bar or the brasserie, with the same menu applying in both. The bar is cosy, carpeted and dog-friendly. The brasserie is an uncluttered, wood-floored space from which – until the light fades, at any rate – you can look out over the patchwork of fields towards the distant rooftops of Hawes and the rolling fells beyond.
We were given an enthusiastic welcome at reception, and entrusted to an affable, smartly attired waiter. Service throughout was courteous, thoughtful and even a touch Old School. It has been many moons now since I was last addressed as ‘Madame’, but I expect I could get used to it.
Our two starters arrived remarkably promptly, in attractive square dishes. Mine was goats’ cheese, served with a pistachio crumb, two kinds of beetroot and a hunk of seared baby gem lettuce. The goats’ cheese was creamy and tangy; it contrasted well with the earthy notes of the red beetroot and the sharper, brighter ones of the pickled white beetroot. The lettuce contributed a refreshing hint of bitterness along with its salady crunch. Altogether a highly satisfactory combination, with plenty of variation in terms of colour, taste and texture.
Our other starter was a fricassée of wild mushrooms served with a hint of Wensleydale cheese on a toasted muffin. Rich, soft and succulent, this was comfort food pure and simple, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Somehow, though, it didn’t quite match the variety and subtlety of the goats’ cheese dish. Had Chef toasted the muffin with a little more conviction, and possibly tossed in a salad leaf or two, the extra textural interest might have transformed an undeniably pleasant but rather understated dish into a truly special experience.
Moving on to mains, we tucked into buttered cod with new potatoes and spinach. Yes, just the three main ingredients, but it goes to show that you don’t need to add lots of bells and whistles to put together a perfect plateful. The cooking of the fish was spot on, and the moist, snow-white, flaky cod was rendered yet more delightful by lashings of butter and a light hollandaise topping. Simple, straightforward, scrumptious.
Our other main? We chose pot-roast leg of lamb, served with sarladaise potatoes, baby carrots, kale and a redcurrant gravy. Sarladaise potatoes? No, I hadn’t heard of them either. It turns out that this is a classic dish from the Dordogne, involving cooking thinly sliced spud in duck or goose fat, together with enough garlic to kill a busload of vampires. Chef had gone the extra mile and layered up his potatoes with bacon to create a kind of millefeuille potato and bacon sandwich. Very toothsome it was too, so full marks for initiative there. The lamb, evidently cooked long and slow, was soft and rich, and there was plenty of it – too much for us to manage it all, in fact. I would have appreciated a touch more fruity pep from the redcurrant gravy, but overall a jolly good effort.
A Sticky End
It’s always nice to finish a meal on a high point, and Chef obliged by hitting us with two particularly stellar desserts, starting with sticky toffee pudding. Yes, I know, we’ve all wolfed this down countless times, but the Simonstone version really was one of the best I’ve eaten for ages. It was partnered with an entrancing caramelly, nut-dusted ice cream, just to boost it even higher into the culinary stratosphere.
Our other dessert was lemon posset, topped with strawberries and chaperoned by two square, grandmotherly shortcake biscuits. Having myself recently made a particularly disastrous lemon posset, I couldn’t help but appreciate the apparently effortless skill behind this one. Creaminess and citrus tang, perfectly balanced – always a winning formula as far as I’m concerned. Chef’s shortbread also put my own bumbling home baking efforts to shame, so I finished the meal feeling pleasantly full but slightly chastened.
The cheery bustle of other diners suggested that we were not the only customers enjoying our night out. With a relaxed, informal atmosphere, and a kitchen that clearly aims at producing well-designed, cleverly cooked, satisfying platefuls rather than indulging in wild experiments or slavishly name-checking the latest fad, it’s no wonder Simonstone has built up an appreciative clientele. And now that the days are steadily lengthening, and there are lighter evenings in prospect, what better excuse for a trip up to the top of Wensleydale to enjoy those thrilling views?
For further information about Simonstone Hall visit simonstonehall.com or call 01969 667255.
What to expect
Big views and hearty, sophisticated nosh.
Unpretentious country house charm.
Like you used to get in the old days.
The bottom line
Three courses from Simonstone’s Evening Menu cost us a shade over £31 per head, excluding drinks.
Down the hatch
There’s a good, wide-ranging wine list with bottles starting at around the £20 mark, along with a decent selection of wines by the glass.
Looking on the bright side
If you would rather enjoy the view from Simonstone during the daylight hours, the brasserie also serves lunch and afternoon tea.
May the Force be with you
A short but steep ramble down through the fields brings you to the hamlet of Hardraw, home of England’s highest single-drop waterfall. You’ll need to pay at The Green Dragon Inn to see it, though.