Claudia Blake visits
The Friar’s Head at Akebar
The Friar’s Head at Akebar will be familiar to many readers as a longstanding fixture on the North Yorkshire dining scene. The pub-restaurant is part of Akebar Holiday Park, halfway between Leyburn and the A1 on the A684. The site was originally developed in the early 1970s, and includes a caravan touring and camping park along with a scenic 18-hole golf course. Now under new management, the facilities at Akebar have been undergoing an extensive programme of renovation and refurbishment. Whether or not you approve of the recent changes at the Friar’s Head will depend on how fond you are of jungle. In former times the conservatory dining room was so jam-packed with luxuriant foliage that it seemed only a couple of hummingbirds and a troop of monkeys short of becoming a tropical rainforest. Now, though, the wayward, rambling vines have been trimmed and tamed, and whilst there are still plants aplenty they are respectful and well manicured. With more room for comfy sofas and neat wooden tables – plus dozens of strings of tiny fairy lights – there’s a new air of spaciousness, clarity and calm. I think it’s a great improvement.
Good Duck Charm
Dining options are flexible, with an ‘Early Bird’ menu offering tapas and a selection of pub classics up until 7pm, and an ‘Evening Menu’ that concentrates on steaks and more high-end dining that’s available from 5.30pm until the kitchen closes. We ordered from the latter.
Freshly baked breads arrived in a miniature canvas kitbag, along with butter and an oil-and-balsamic dip. Oddly, though, we were given no side plates to contain crumbs and drips. Luckily this was the one and only presentational eccentricity during the meal. That’s right, not a slate, board or Kilner jar in sight, just plain, honest, white crocks. All very sensible and straightforward. In terms of looks, the first of our starters, a warm duck salad, was effectively just a loose heap of bits and bobs in a dish. When it came to the eating, though, the jumble revealed itself to be a truly stellar taste combination. The dish majored on Oriental flavours – spring onion, soy and sesame – with a couple of orange segments thrown in for good measure. The duck was rich, flaky and slightly caramelised. Cashew nuts, tiny cubes of beetroot and a variety of crisp salad leaves added extra colours and textures to a winning mix. Definitely something I would come back for. Our second starter was pressed ham terrine with a black pudding bonbon and a celeriac remoulade. This one certainly made a bit more of a design statement on the plate – and it slipped down easily enough – but it didn’t wow us the way the duck salad had. The terrine was meaty, and was evidently packed with fresh herbs, but it seemed a touch leaden, and the flavours were muted. Likewise the bonbon, which had a fabulous crispy crust but was a bit short on the burly, iron-rich taste you expect from black pudding. And whilst the celeriac remoulade added a welcome crunch and a certain sharpness, it didn’t deliver the hearty kick up the backside that the other two elements of the dish appeared to be waiting for.
We were back on track with the mains, though, starting with roast rump of lamb. With the exception of the occasional chewy corner, the meat was tasty and well-cooked.
It was served with crisp, succulent broccoli, an equally green and pleasant mélange of peas and baby broad beans, and a rich, minty jus that pulled all the elements together. A generous roundel of fondant potato was also in attendance to add extra centimetres to the waistline. Our other main was a meaty extravaganza too: pan-seared venison steak with Dauphinoise potatoes, braised red cabbage, parsnip crisps and a redcurrant jus. Chef serves his venison nicely charred and caramelised on the outside but fairly rare inside. That was fine by me, though, and we were consulted about it in advance. Add to the toothsome meat a wedge of soft, creamy potato, some nicely spiced cabbage and a bright, fruity jus and you’ve got a decidedly hearty plateful to cheer you up on a dark, chilly night. Desserts didn’t disappoint either. Our vanilla pannacotta had a luscious, creamy texture and a winsome wobble. It came with a red fruit compote and a just-right mini meringue. Meanwhile the strawberry and lemon mascarpone cheesecake struck precisely the right balance between sweet and sharp. It too came with a fruity compote, and boasted a smart swirly pattern on top for extra visual clout. So how did it all stack up? As you’ll have gathered, we enjoyed thoroughly tasty, unpretentious food in congenial surroundings. Service, too, hit the mark, with front-of-house staff friendly, prompt, efficient and always there when you needed them. Prices are very fair for what you get, so it’s no surprise the place was bustling, even on a dreary midweek night. Although one or two diehards may hark back nostalgically to the rampant vegetation of yesteryear, there’s no doubt that the Friar’s Head’s makeover has brought the place bang up to date and given it a welcome new sense of focus and direction. For further information about The Friar’s Head visit www.akebarpark.com/restaurant-pub or call 01677 450201.
What to expect
Accomplished, value-for-money food served in a cosy conservatory setting.
Outside it’s a slightly incongruous medieval-themed folly. Inside, a tranquil, thoroughly modernised – but still quirky and characterful – stone-flagged haven.
Easygoing and efficient.
The bottom line
Three courses from the Evening Menu cost us around £27 each, excluding drinks.
Down the hatch
A compact but wide-ranging selection of wines, with wines by the glass starting at £3.90 (175ml).
Family and four-legged friends
Children’s menu available. Dogs allowed in bar area but not in the dining room.
Family outings. Work socials.
Gone but not forgotten
Akebar was an ancient village, now long vanished, whose farms once bred top-quality horses for nearby Jervaulx Abbey.