At first glance, The Blind Swine is one giant contradiction.
The heaviest-of-heavy-rock juxtaposed with fine dining makes for an unlikely alliance. It certainly isn’t for everybody. Nor does it try to be.
Nevertheless, I suspect the hedonist in most of us (whether latent or tattooed on our forehead) wouldn’t be too disarmed by the prospect of a 9-course tasting menu with drink pairings against such a backdrop. My companion for the night, Vicky, our Editor, certainly wasn’t.
For those not yet acquainted with The Blind Swine on Swinegate, it is a brazen newcomer to York’s bustling bar and restaurant scene that has overnight become the de-facto haunt of like-minded aficionados.
It knows what it is and projects its identity loud and proud, demanding a reaction from anybody who will listen. Such confidence is admirable.
Perhaps the most obvious display of this volour on the night in question was the proclamation written on the window keeping unwanted racegoers at bay. It’s a bold move but one that was appreciated on this occasion.
Metallica et al kindly provided our soundtrack for the sitting. It made for a noisy, lively, almost frenzied encounter. You could probably throw risky into that mix. Drinkers mingle amongst diners and the hum of the clientele pale in comparison to the roar of the music. But tonight we were here for the food.
It soon became clear that The Blind Swine is underselling itself on this front.
Vinyl sleeves serving as menus revealed an experimental but no less sophisticated affair was in store.
With a list of ingredients that purposely unsettles, it also hinted to the sense of theatre that would accompany our every course. For £37.50 a head, we were certainly going to get our money’s worth, whether it agreed with our palate or not.
Masters of ceremony are Michael O’Hare in the kitchen and James Wreglesworth behind the bar, both supported by an impressive cast. The courses draw heavily on O’Hare’s influences: a tour of deconstructed British classics via the opulence of French high cuisine and on-trend Nordic reinvention. The latter is courtesy of time spent at the much-celebrated Noma (rated Best Restaurant in the World 2010, 2011 and 2012 by Restaurant). O’Hare is therefore predictably big on the molecular and, yes, nitrogen cavitation does make an appearance. Wreglesworth’s resume is equally impressive and The Blind Swine is a daredevil collaboration of their two minds.
My companion’s dietary requirements, being lactose intolerant, laid down the first challenge to the pair. The usual blasé attitude of many restaurants to such a request hardly reassures, but here it was taken seriously and the courses duly adapted. They weren’t second-rate versions either, much to Vicky’s delight.
We were eased into our culinary marathon with a course of hay bread and smoked butter whose sole existence was presumably to cleanse the palate. With the safe bets over, the world of spectacle soon began.
Practically every course drew animated praise but it was five of the nine that really stood out. The next saw us tucking into an everyday plant pot to unearth spring vegetables in a delicious dandelion emulsion hidden beneath an edible malt soil. That’s a first, for me at least. It was accompanied with a refreshing “Beefeater 24” comprising of Martini, Cocchi americano, basil, lemongrass and sencha-tea syrup.
Such playful and exquisite presentation ran throughout. Make no mistake, these courses were intended to be works of art.
A small plate of crunchy mussels, wholly edible, upon a serving of samphire was another treat. It was followed by a classic champagne cocktail with a sugar cube doused in citric acid, malic acid and Boker’s Bitters.
On the lighter courses the beverage assumed the lead role, as was the case with the knockout sherry punch pairing the hot and cold pea soup. Not all the drinks were alcoholic I hasten to add, however they were the most memorable.
Our trepidation on approaching a course of conger eel was short-lived, which we found to be plump in texture, nestled on yellow courgette and inspiration of bras. The raison d’être of certain vegetables and herbs suddenly became clear.
Moving on to drier ground, I defy anybody not to enjoy the lamb belly on black quinoa, which was every bit as delightful as it sounds.
We were already seduced by the time dessert arrived. For a man whose sweet tooth left him at childhood, the Jerusalem artichoke with bergamot and lemon, flanked by burnt chocolate fins was a surprising highlight. The epitome of indulgence, it was a ‘lick your bowl clean’ kind of dessert.
Finally the impossibly strong Monsoon Malabar coffee negated any comedown that you would expect from the end of a meal of this magnitude.
From beginning to end, it was a perfectly choreographed 90 minutes. The relay that existed between kitchen and bar had a natural rhythm that avoided feeling too forced. It struck the ideal balance of flair and flavour with noticeably less boundaries than elsewhere. You could say that it’s testament to the talent and care of duty of all involved that it succeeds at all.
Perhaps the biggest criticism is the sometimes overbearing ambience that accompanies the meal. The Blind Swine isn’t blessed with an overly generous space. Privacy is not its friend. Thankfully it’s easy to lose yourself in the nine courses but a certain amount of the theatre is invested in the unveiling and explanation of the dishes. Although it’s pitched squarely at adventurous diners, the unholy volume of the music made it impossible to hear the waiter at times or even to hold conversation across a table. Luckily for them it’s something that’s straightforward enough to correct. I guess it comes down to a matter of priorities.
In conclusion, The Blind Swine’s tasting menu presents more than a meal, it’s an experience that promises a lot and doesn’t disappoint. High on inventiveness and offering something different for York, it is fantastic value at £37.50 a head. Approach with an open mind and prepare to be blown away.