There was nothing about the faintly starchy room in chi-chi Montpellier contender with its namesake in Cheltenham Van zeller harrogate the UK's most middle-class postcode that suggested we were in for any fireworks. But, food-wise, it was all that and more — the full Roman candle. I left vowing to return.
So here I am, hopefully about to do justice to the cooking of a chap I'd say was up there with the country's finest.
Van Zeller's creations do a high-wire act between thoughtful and playful, while never being anything other than an utter pleasure to eat. And to gaze at. The flavours he wrangles out of humble ingredients — carrot, onion, salmon skin — are little short of miraculous.
Cucumber is turned into a bracing granita, served with lightly vinegared, julienned and charred chunks of the vegetable, adding Pommery mustard to deliver something tasting like essence of celestial gherkin. He stuffs a tube of tissue-thin tuile with mascarpone, stained fuchsia with beetroot; it comes with blobs of glossy beet emulsion and mandolined chioggia, a decorative vegetable that, like romanesco, makes me think a higher being might actually exist.
There's salmon, translucent at heart, with a cloud of peppery watercress foam I knowa puffy, prawn-crackerish crisp made from its skin, whipped avocado, and bacon "jam" — the tiniest, stickiest, smoky cubelets, just enough to add a frisson. And rabbit, tender and blush-pink, as far removed from Jeanette Winterson's raw-in-tooth-and-claw treatment as it's possible to be.
It sits among carrot-top and nasturtium leaf foliage and a rainbow of carrots, gently or just-blanched, scattered over "soil" of mushroomy crumb.
Bucolic doesn't come close: What I love most about the food here is that it's of itself. Sure, it's ambitious and complex, but you don't find yourself prodding at overprocessed ingredients or sniffing foams wondering whether they're parsnip or tonka bean.
With fruit this perfect, why muck about with it? Puddings juggle the likes of lavender and honeycomb, or coffee and salted caramel, with wit and skill; "Van zeller harrogate" now, this
Van zeller harrogate exactly what I expect.
So the food continues to provide the pyrotechnics. This time, though, there are eccentricities: There's no use giving me that old-fashioned get-over-yourself glower: Open Tues-Sat, lunch noon-2pm, dinner 6pmpm.
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