DRIVING along the A66 towards Cumbria the other day, we passed the Fox Hall Inn, the roadside hostelry once famed for its ghastly colour – I can only describe it as intestinal tract yellow.

These days the Fox Hall has a more digestible hue but what really caught our eye was the large sign about its winter break which lasts all of January and a chunk of February. What establishment makes so much money in 10 months of the year that it can afford to take six weeks off?

May be it’s not such a bad idea. Who really wants to eat out in January except those sad people called restaurant critics who have columns to file and space to fill?

The rest of you are all spent up after Christmas and New Year and waiting for that end-of-the-month pay cheque. And if you are lucky enough not to be short of cash you will be at least a stone overweight and on some crazy diet or holier-than-thou exercise regime which makes a visit to a restaurant akin to sharing bread with the Devil.

So there we were sitting in a slightly chilly Yorkshire Dales pub just after 6pm on a Monday evening feeling a bit sorry for ourselves and think of you lot in your nice cosy homes, smugly sitting in front of Emmerdale and tucking into your Weightwatchers ready meal, having completed your post-work 5k in record time.

OK, OK. I realise this is an unforgiveably pathetic attempt to make you feel sorry for us - and yes there were some compensations.

Chief among those was the venue. This Yorkshire Dales pub was the Wensleydale Heifer at West Witton. We reckon it was last reviewed in the D&S in 2005, very favourably if we recall correctly. That’s a long time ago but then it’s been considered top notch in all that time, collecting a shoal of awards for the quality of its seafood along the way. It is further evidence that proves my theory that the quality of seafood served improves the further one gets from the sea. I’ve eaten some truly awful fish in Whitby over the years.

We were eating early to take advantage of the Heifer’s early bird offer which unlike almost every other early bird offer these days is limited to a brief period early in the evening – between 6 and 6.30. At £19.75 for two courses and £23.75 it’s very good value. Eating a la carte at the Heifer isn’t cheap.

Our table was in the fish bar, one of the less formal areas of the Heifer which generally is beautifully done out, from the loos (great selection of saucy Bamforth postcards in the gents’) to the formal dining room. In the fish bar, the fish theme is all pervasive, from the seagrass flooring to the sea green coloured walls and seaside ornaments aplenty.

Initially, it was less than cosy but within a minute or two of sitting down we heard one of the staff instruct another to turn the heating up and in short order the temperature rose. Our demeanour was further improved by the arrival of two small glasses of house Sauvingnon Blanc and Chenin Blanc (£5.50 each), bread, butter, chilli dipping oil and two salmon, prawn and cream cheese puff pastry canapés.

The main event was hard to fault. Our starters were a Caesar salad and barbecued glazed pork ribs. The mains were fillet of herb-crusted coley served on a chorizo and blush tomato risotto and a warm salad of king scallops, tiger prawns, crispy belly pork and smoked bacon, little gem lettuce, blush tomato and croutons with a sweet maple syrup dressing. The addition of lobster was an £8 supplement. We also shared a small bowl of chunky chips which came with a sweet salsa dip.

Sylvia, who had the ribs and the warm salad, reckoned it was the best meal she had eaten in a very long time. The ribs were described as “splendidly sticky” and very meaty. She also loved the delicate sweetness of the maple salad and the seafood elements were universally well cooked although she questioned whether the lobster was worth the supplement.

The starlets of my Caesar salad were the tangy, almost sharp, marinated anchovies and the little gem lettuce. I’ll never make a Caesar with iceberg ever again.

Coley is a great alternative to cod but the standout element of my main course was the risotto. Every last molecule of starch had been lovingly stirred out of the rice to create the creamiest of textures and the chorizo flavour was in check, adding to the richness but not overpoweringly so.

We debate long and hard about the chunky chips (£3.50). Definitely twice fried we thought but there was something about the fluffiness that was quite remarkable. The secret, we were told later, was steaming rather than boiling the potatoes. Whatever, the result was just brilliant.

Sylvia had a nice hot latte (£3.50) while I battled with Banoffee baked Alaska with caramelised banana – a triumph of construction and more-ishness

The bill of £76 included 10 per cent service which is added automatically (diners are asked to request its removal if not happy). A practice widespread in big city restaurants, it is spreading to the sticks. Some find it objectionable, but I’m coming round to it. It does mean you don’t have to think about what is the appropriate gratuity.

Certainly, we couldn’t quibble with how we were looked after, even when the main dining room got busy later on.


The Wensleydale Heifer, West Witton, North Yorkshire DL8 4LS

Tel: 01969 622322

Web: wensleydaleheifer.co.uk

Open: Monday to Sunday, noon -2.30pm, 6-9.30pm. Early Bird Menu available 6-6.30pm

Disabled access. Vegetarian options.

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 9 Service 10 Surroundings 10 Value 9