Dinner parties today can be a great source of restaurant recommendations, Nick finds. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
As a man, I am invariably placed next to an interesting woman and today, when everyone is a food expert, that usually means someone with strong opinions on where I should eat.
At a friend's recent birthday, I was next to a lady who has been for many years a resident of Stoke Newington in north London. This is the neighbourhood that those who live outside of it have never heard of, but those who live in it never want to leave. She left me with two heartfelt local recommendations: Farang for Thai food and Little Sardegna, for Sardinian cooking.
Shortly before that, I had sat next to another very bright woman whose career brought her frequently to London while her husband remained resolutely in Scotland, his homeland. She told me how she deliberately scheduled meals en route at an exciting restaurant called Skosh near York railway station. I wrote this unusual name down in my little black book, determined to investigate.
The restaurant comes with certain natural advantages because the street it is on, Micklegate, could not be more atmospheric and is only a five-minute walk from the station. At one end is the Bar, a remnant of York's twelfth-century city walls. Part of the street outside is cobbled. There is a churchyard with stocks in its courtyard. And there is even Ken Spelman's obviously thriving antiquarian bookshop.
Skosh comes as something of a jolt in these historic surroundings. Its interior is bright and modern. There is no doubting where you are – all the waiting staff and the kitchen team wear aprons with the name of the restaurant blatantly obvious – and the kitchen at the far end of the room is open to all. The restaurant's unusual name is a play on the Japanese word sukoshi, which means 'a small amount'.
Skosh is the very personal creation of chef Neil Bentinck. Born in London, he came to Yorkshire aged three and has remained there, learning his trade in various kitchens, interspersed with travelling to India, Australia and across Asia, all of which have had important influences on his cooking style. His ideal is to use these influences while sticking very closely to the seasons and the ingredients that he finds on his doorstep.
His menu clearly reflects this approach even if some of the combinations seem downright whacky. There are puris, the deep-fried Indian snack; pumpkin is served as a chawanmushi, the Japanese egg custard dish; ox cheek comes 'Thai style' with pineapple and a salted duck egg; while a dish of miso-glazed cod, presumably Nobu-inspired, seems relatively tame by comparison with the brassicas, mussels and pine nuts that accompany it. His least expensive dessert, £3.50, of whisky-spiced milk, again Indian inspired and served with a kumquat jam doughnut, seemed perfect on a cold winter's day.
I have to admit that until this meal, I was no fan of this style of eating: food served as snacks and small plates. But perhaps it was the effect of being a customer at a time when the all-male, bearded kitchen brigade were feeling optimistic, and when the business is presumably profitable too. Now in its third year, with lessons learnt from the first and the rent now not too frightening, Skosh offers a confident face to its customers.
This is helped by straightforward, down-to-earth Yorkshire approach to service. The waitress who looked after us could not have been more charming, prefacing each dish with the memorable words 'next up'.
First up was Bentinck's dish of puris, in this instance made of smoked haddock and potato (£6), their freshness accentuated by the small amount of pickled lime underneath. This proved to be a most appetising first course and was followed by two grilled venison dumplings (£6.50) with blackcurrant vinegar providing the essential acidity.
There then followed perhaps the highlight of the meal. I had been intrigued by its simple description – salmon cream, pickled beetroot, mirin and caviar (£6.50) – but I was surprised by its presentation, in a white bowl on a brown dish with four pieces of thin toast to the side. But digging deep into it, the flavours of the diced beetroot mixed so elegantly with the creamed salmon, the texture of both highlighted by the crunch of the salmon eggs and the sweetness of the rice wine.
I asked Bentinck where the inspiration for this dish came from. 'Initially', he replied, 'we tried this with salmon trout without beetroot late last summer but I believe it works even better now that the beetroot is so juicy'.
This adventurousness worked equally well with my last two main courses, Galician octopus with pear and black beans (£10.50) sounds off to say the least but the glistening dark octopus tentacles were moist and yielding; the black beans provided the salt; while the slices of pear lifted the whole of this unlikely combination.
As for the equally odd-sounding satay of pheasant with turnips, apples and peanut cream (£10.50 and pictured top right), the two sticks were threaded through pheasant meat that had been marinated so cleverly that there was no suggestion of the dryness that is normally associated with this game bird. When I asked Bentinck to explain this dish, he just smiled nonchalantly and observed, 'that dish just seems to sum up my approach to cooking. They are all local ingredients, all in season, but all given a twist.'
I cannot wait for his dishes featuring Yorkshire rhubarb that he and his kitchen were just finalising.
Skosh 98 Micklegate, York YO1 6JX; tel +44 (0)1904 634849