Admission: I’ve got a thing about angels. From binge-watching Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire to a treasured print of Marc Chagall’s Jacob’s Dream with its striking Seraphim enmeshed in the battle between good and evil… I’m smitten. Maybe less so with Robbie Williams and his angelic vision.
Still one chunk of Angel’s lyrics strikes a heavenly chord: “I sit and wait/Does an angel contemplate my fate/And do they know/The places where we go/When we’re grey and old?”
The answer, in this grizzled food lover’s case, is back to the Angel at Hetton. Our Own Private Angelo, in another age, when it staked a claim to being the nation’s first ‘gastropub’. Well ahead of The Eagle in Farringdon, one much-touted contender.
The surrounding Dales countryside looks little changed from the Nineties when this was a regular foray but, pulling off road, we notice all the roseate creepers have been purged from the inn frontage and the signage is now a discreet ‘Angel’ and a Michelin star insignia.
We park next to a silver Jaguar F-Type convertible, which may signal the presence of pop royalty for lunch. Or his Satanic Majesty. We never find out. It’s the weather that has us dazzled. If memory serves, it rained incessantly in Yorkshire between September 1996 and April 1999. Today, July 19, 2021 offers the dry heat of Provence in high summer and the Hetton village limestone is all honeyed Luberon in the glare.
The Angel interior, reassuringly well-ventilated, is cool and grey. Like me, only with better manners. Yet it does not feel stuffy. Staff are young but properly drilled. This means a Kir Royale (for birthday girl whose treat this is) and a water bowl (for Captain Smidge, the panting chihuahua) are swiftly brought. It’s touch and go which of the pair will have the prime share of a lamb main in this dog-friendly establishment.
Restaurant and bar area are both being used for meals, a la carte or tasting menu, to maximise covers while spacing out tables. It’s done well. The attention to detail will carry over into the food. We are here because Michael Wignall is here.
A chef not given to self-publicity but among the profession a legend. Not so much for his one-time consultancy role with Hotel Football when Gary Neville gave this Preston-born United fan the opportunity to create Nev’s Noodles and a black-pudding sausage roll (both splendid but maybe the punters weren’t ready for umami and the like).
The rest of his career path, though, reads like a road map of New British Cuisine with two star tenures at The Latymer and Gidleigh Park. We last tasted his fastidious food, with a hint of Japanese influence, when he guested at Northcote’s 2016 Obsessions festival.
Two years later the Angel became the first restaurant of his own, the ambitious transformation made possible by a partnership with friends James and Josephine Wellock, top end catering produce suppliers.
We watched all this from afar as the pandemic narrowed all our dining out opportunities but noted the swift recognition of a Michelin star and a meteoric rise in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list. Until this mellowest of Mondays it remained on a bucket list as I persuaded myself the joys of labour intensive home cooking could more than compensate for a proper restaurant experience.
Which brings us – as some seriously cute amuse bouches reach the table, prompting explorative sniffs from The Captain on his cushion – to why we first patronised this off the beaten track drovers inn that dates back to the 15th century (though the oak beams and other ‘original’ features are 17th).
It’s all down to Moneybags. No, not the kind that helps fund Jaguars. As far inland as you can get in our realm and fish specials were the lure. Owner Dennis Watkins would chalk catches of the day up on a blackboard but the one constant was a little filo parcel in a pool of lobster reduction. The full name, ‘Little Moneybag of Seafood’.
Simple pleasure that it sounds now, yet it became a kind of signature dish of the Watkins dynasty that began in 1983 and turned The Angel into an unexpected foodie destination. The family kept going when Dennis died in 2004, just after an expansion into a former barn had created bedrooms and a ‘wine cave’. A decade ago its reputation was still high enough to merit a visit from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the original series of The Trip.
Chefs came and went. One former private chef to Donna Karan with a back story in the Turks and Caicos introduced his own silver hake satay and other innovations but when Moneybags orders dipped the writing was on the wall.
A bottle of Chinon, lightly chilled Cabernet Franc, is now at my elbow, alongside a freshly baked sourdough loaf with parsley and lovage butter. I’m driving the birthday girl home so I just get to sniff and have two very modest glasses. There was never a chance of staying over. Across the land the places you’d love to stay at are fully booked up until well into the autumn. It doesn’t stop me dreaming of a siesta, dinner and a next day Wignall breakfast followed by a dog walk over Rylstone Edge before the heat gets too intense. One day.
Never go back? Sometimes it’s good to. Hetton in high summer has just offered a slice of heaven.
SO WHAT DID WE EAT AT THE ANGEL AT HETTON?
There is a £75 tasting menu We chose three courses from the a la carte, which came with inevitable extras, including an intense pre-main mini chicken in ramen broth, a perfect little sourdough ‘pain’ with parsley and lovage butter plus dreamy petits fours. It cost £70 each.
Pleasingly fatty, troutlike tranche in rich shrimp butter, cut through by gooseberry; kohlrabi and razor clam adding texture.
A fan of lightly marinated raw Scottish scallop is given the freshest of treatments. Frozen buttermilk, peas and cucumber are natural allies. A slash of charcoal and a scattering of Ocscietra caviar on th buttermilk is the masterstroke.
A triumph of sourcing and restraint on the plate. Cumbrian loin and belly, blobs of celeriac puree, barbecued gem lettuce and leek with an earthy undertow from hen of the wood.
So a Norfolk quail, ethically reared by the same enterprising East Anglian farm that supplied the Norfolk poussin on the menu at Michelin soulmate Northcote. The quail is the base for an elaborate combo of breast with bitter dandelion, a leg paired with a veal sweetbread, miso/sunflower oil on the side. Artichoke dice and winter truffle all contribute to a very special dish.
The obvious birthday treat across the table, featuring a steamed sponge and cherries, alongside an Orelys bronze chocolate base topped by sugar snaps, frozen estate dairy milk and more cherries. I had no chance to explore further since it was devoured so swiftly.
Aerated parfaits I can do without, even flavoured with my favourite, verbena. Otherwise there was much to admire in the yoking together of strawberries and their distant wild cousins, pineberries with olive oil and yogurt.
The Angel at Hetton, near Skipton BD23 6LT. 01756 730263. Mon, Fri, Sat and Sun lunch 12pm-2pm, dinner 6.30pm-8.30pm; Thu dinner 6.30pm-8.30pm. Closed Tue and Wed. Under the new regime there are now 15 en-suite rooms – on the first floor, in a neighbouring cottage and across the road in the Fell View Barn, which once housed the ‘wine cave’. Two dog-friendly rooms are available, with doggy bed and bowls provided, while dogs are allowed to join their owner for meals in the normal bar area.
WHERE ELSE TO EAT IN THIS BEAUTIFUL CORNER OF GOD’S COUNTRY?
Devonshire Arms Brasserie, Bolton Abbey
Two decades ago the peripatetic Wignall was chef at the Devonshire Arms’ showcase restaurant, the decidedly formal Burlington. In complete contrast is the venerable hotel’s second dining spot, a riot of candy-striped upholstery and ‘bold’ artworks on white-washed walls. The plan had been to lunch on the pop-up terrace next to the helipad but the weather wasn’t Hettonesque, so the perpetually sunny Brasserie it was. It shares the commitment of the Burlington to fine raw materials, Try the torched house cured salmon with beetroot, pickle and horseradish, followed by lamb rump with lentils, tomato mint, Yorkshire fettle, green olives, spring greens and pan jus. 3 courses £35, 2 courses £28.
The Fleece at Addingham
Just a couple of miles down the road from Bolton Abbey and Wharfedale has become Airedale. Cars thunder into Ilkley along the A65 bypass, leaving Addingham village relatively serene. Its best pub has twice come back from the dead after being gutted by an arson attack in 2015, then shut after Joycelyn Neve’s Seafood Pub Co, which expensively restored it, went into administration. New owners rescued half of the chain and she’s back at the helm, with supplies from her father Chris’s Fleetwood seafood business. So go for the Fleece’s fish specials or a sharing plate of fruits de mer. We pushed out the boat and splashed out £69 on two full lobsters as rain swept the terrace. We were happily under cover. Atypical’s the word for that sun-dappled day in Hetton.