Claudia Blake visits
The Fairfax Arms at Gilling East
Gilling East is a pretty, well-heeled village on the southern edge of the Ampleforth Abbey estate. Set in the rolling, well-wooded landscape of Ryedale, its attractions include two historic churches and a village hall that stands in the middle of an extensive miniature railway and rather immodestly claims to be ‘the best in England’.
The Fairfax Arms is a long stone building parallel to the beck that runs along Gilling East’s Main Street. The Fairfax is set to become longer still later this year, when the works on its new Orangery extension are completed.
The interior has been jollied up to 21st century standards without losing sight of the warmth and cosiness of the traditional English country pub. With its muted colours, plump leather chairs, wooden settles and understated décor, it’s eminently relaxed and comfy. And despite majoring on fine dining, management appears to have kept villagers on side. The Fairfax remains a bustling, friendly local, whose bar shades almost imperceptibly into the dining areas, indicated by little other than a change of flooring.
There’s plenty to choose from on the menu, with vegetarian options that sound like genuinely delicious platefuls rather than grudging concessions to non-meat-eaters. The walnut, goats’ cheese and red onion marmalade spring roll caught our attention, so we decided to give it a whirl. For our other starter we opted for smoked ham and pickled Yorkshire rhubarb terrine.
In terms of presentation it was the terrine that stole the show, arriving, as it did, beneath a glass dome full of smoke. Mind you, the smoke was largely a matter of showmanship; once the dome had been removed and the fug had cleared it was hard to tease out any notably smoky flavours from the terrine itself.
It looked a treat, though: a neat slab flecked with herbs and studded with cross-sections of green and pink rhubarb stems. A sweet-sharp Calvados and apple chutney, a pert salad and a brace of gingerbread crisps – bready, rather than sweet – added extra colours and textures. Great fun, and a promising start to the evening’s eating.
Our other starter, the spring roll, would have been hard-pressed to compete in terms of visual impact, but tried its best nonetheless. The pastry parcel was sliced diagonally and tastefully posed on a midnight-black dish, along with a vibrant green spring onion and cucumber salad.
Inside the wrapper the goats’ cheese, finely crumbled walnut and onion marmalade combined to form a surprisingly rich, meaty-tasting mixture. Pleasant enough, albeit to my palate somewhat soft, sweet and lacking in oomph. More texture in the walnut department might have helped, along with a sprinkle of something sharp and crunchy.
On, then, to mains, starting with pan-seared turbot accompanied by roast salsify, samphire and cauliflower purée. Other than the fact that the fish skin could have been crisper, this was a near-faultless plateful: grown-up, subtle and satisfying. The fish was soft and melting and the salsify, with its rich artichoke-meets-celeriac flavour, made a perfect bed for it to sit on. The salty crunch of samphire brought a glint of seashore freshness, and the silky cauliflower purée – along with a lemon beurre blanc – tied the elements on the plate together nicely.
It’s a Wrap
Our other main, spring lamb Wellington with Yorkshire asparagus and fondant potato, was presented, like the rest of the evening’s dishes, boldly and confidently. Getting the meat perfectly cooked in a Wellington is always a challenge, and ideally I would have preferred mine a shade pinker. That said, the taste of the lamb in its overcoat of crisp pastry and Parma ham was good enough for us to forgive a few minutes too long in the oven. The asparagus had been attentively cooked and the red wine jus was dark and rich. An extra spoonful or two – or even a jug on the side – would have been much appreciated.
Our savoury courses had been elegant, inventive and tasty, so we had high hopes of dessert. After an indulgent meal I often yearn for something fruity and refreshing, and both our dessert choices – lemon tart and passionfruit cheesecake – seemed tailor-made to provide just that.
For me, the best lemon tarts strike a balance between sharp and sweet, fruity and creamy. Disappointingly The Fairfax’s version seemed somewhat lacking in sharp fruitiness, contenting itself with mere middle-of-the-road sweetness. On the positive side, though, there was also an exquisite raspberry sorbet on the plate. Presumably intended as a supporting act, it proved to be the star of the show. Delicious.
Possibly Chef has a sweet tooth, because the story with the passionfruit cheesecake was a remarkably similar one. In the past I’ve struggled with passionfruit desserts so mouth-puckeringly sour as to be well-nigh impossible to swallow. The overall effect in this case, however, was of cream cheese heaviness, with the passionfruit relegated to a shy, unassertive glaze. Fortunately, as with the lemon tart, this ho-hum main act was redeemed by a simply stellar sidekick in the form of a kiwi fruit sorbet good enough to kill for.
A couple of wobbles, then, but better to aim high and risk the occasional disappointment than produce the identikit pub food that has become the norm in lesser establishments. The Fairfax is ploughing its own furrow, and, judging by how busy it was on a weekday night, clearly has a number of appreciative repeat customers happy to give it the thumbs-up.
For further information about The Fairfax Arms visit thefairfaxarms.co.uk or call 01439 788212.
What to expect
Artistic platefuls and adventurous cooking.
An easygoing, up-to-date take on the cosy rural hostelry of days gone by.
Efficient, friendly and informed.
The bottom line
Our three courses from The Fairfax Arms’ Main Menu clocked up a total just shy of £65 for the two of us, drinks excluded.
Down the hatch
The wide-ranging wine list includes a generous selection of wines by the glass, with prices starting at £4.55 (175ml).
The Fairfax also offers a variety of light lunch options, sandwiches and traditional pub favourites.
Gilling East makes a good starting point for walkers keen to explore the lush scenery of the Howardian Hills and the orchard-studded grounds of Ampleforth Abbey.