Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
1:01 AM 17th February 2024

Fine Dining: A Nirvana In The North Yorkshire Moors - The Owl, Hawnby

The Owl at Hawnby
Photo: Andrew Palmer
The Owl at Hawnby Photo: Andrew Palmer
Lee Webb remembers his first visit to The Owl in Hawnby. It had been snowing, the roads were icy, and three miles from the village, his taxi driver stopped, informing him that he could not go any further.

Instead of turning back, Webb decided to do what you see in so many films and in moments of epiphany: he got out of the car and walked down the hill to the pub. The scenery was, he says, magisterial, magical, and atmospheric.

The rest is history. It was not long before Webb was back as The Owl’s general manager. 

Last Friday, along with a friend, I travelled across from the bottom of Sutton Bank, passing through the villages of Felixkirk and Boltby. The previous day’s snow had nearly disappeared, and there was low cloud on the narrow roads. Lights twinkled from houses as we drove through the villages.

Like Webb, as I entered Hawnby through the hazy mist, there was an ethereal glow. I, too, felt that magical aura. Quite a nirvana.

Parking up, the view was beautiful. Described as a hidden gem near Helmsley in the heart of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, The Owl, as Webb says, “is the heartbeat of the village. One of the finest inns, with rooms in the whole of North Yorkshire.” 

It is a big claim, but after tasting the cuisine provided by Yorkshire-born chef Sam Varley, and staying over, I can attest that there is truth in the claim. Varley is the co-owner of Bantam, the Michelin-acclaimed restaurant in Helmsley.

Webb, along with barman Will and front-of-house Jess, gave a warm welcome, like the fire burning brightly in the bar area. There was a lovely buzz. A couple had just left, smiling. Webb’s philosophy is quite simple: “Don’t open the door if the right team is not in place.” And, as if staged, the couple who had just left came rushing back with a tip to say thank you. “It’s refreshing,” she says, “not to see a tip suggested or added to the bill”. 

Webb tells me the village has been supportive; “we feel at the heart of the community, and it is nice to be able to give something back.” The Mexborough Estate Manager is chatting away, enjoying an end-of-week pint, and we have just missed the head and deputy gamekeepers who are regulars. The Owl has built up a great reputation for hosting shooting parties.

Settling back to enjoy a well-prepared G&T, we surveyed Varley’s excellently curated menu, which had plenty of mouthwatering choices. Varley cleverly puts together a bill of fare that he says represents “honest, simple food done well.”

Night had finally drawn in, and we sat at our table in the quirky dining room. We were struck by how black it was outside—no lampposts or artificial light except for the odd car headlight miles away in the distance. It felt like I had been transported into an Agatha Christie play.

Devilled Kidneys
Devilled Kidneys
Monkfish Scampi
Monkfish Scampi
I opted for Devilled Kidneys on toast and my friend, monkfish scampi and curry mayonnaise. When they arrived, the portions were well-judged. The kidneys were delightfully cooked, not too tough, and with a warmth of flavour, mace, white pepper, Worcester sauce, and tabasco combining to create an old English dish from a chef who combines ingredients impeccably. The only disappointment? It had all gone too quickly.

The coating on the monkfish scampi was light and airy, again faultlessly cooked, and the curried mayonnaise was creamy, gentle, and light, with just a slight kick to it.

Steak frittes
Steak frittes
The mains were similarly difficult to settle on. The choice of vegetarian options shows creativity, but we plumped for the Hanger steak frites with confit garlic butter and creamed spinach and potato gnocchi, pheasant ragu, and cavolo nero.

Pheasant Ragu
Pheasant Ragu
The consistency of the gnocchi was excellent, light, and plenty of umami. This special that Varley had cooked lacked nothing; the subtleties of flavours came together so daintily without any of them crowding the dish or the palate. The steak was slightly on the rare side of medium, but the meat’s juices added to the flavour. The salt and garlic on top were far from domineering. Varley obviously understands how salt brings out flavour. Even the trenchant ‘anti-saltist’ would have appreciated it. I have been to numerous eateries recently, and not one has produced fries that are spoiled from old oil. The Owl's fries are freshly cooked and crispy. The buttered spinach was springy, refreshing, and slightly sweet. 

Another Varley special followed: a choux bun with white chocolate ice cream, rhubarb, and pistachio. The textural quality of this dish was superlative; the butter permeated through the bun, the crunch of the pistachio, the silky smoothness of the ice cream, and the slight tartness of the rhubarb came together across the taste buds. A glorious choice. A rich, velvety chocolate mousse with brandied prunes, crème fraiche, and hazelnut biscuit was also relished and savoured. 

Like many first-class restaurants in Yorkshire, the meat was supplied by R&J Meats of Kirby Malzeard and the fish by Hodgsons of Hartlepool.

Choux Bun
Choux Bun
Chatting with Varley before the close of service, he certainly has some great ideas that he wants to develop.

“The food and drink we are serving will cover all bases, from walkers coming in for a pint and a snack to guests staying for dinner and bed and breakfast. Everyone will be treated to the warmest of welcomes and tremendous food.

“There will be a clear distinction between the bar snacks and the full restaurant menu, but all our food will be created in-house and served with the same attention to detail and care we take at Bantam.”

Sated, I headed to bed in one of the lovely, refurbished rooms and slept well.

The following day, there was a gossamer feel to the morning; cobwebs, dew, and droplets of rain hung from the fences in the garden. There is plenty of choice for breakfast, from cured trout and scrambled eggs to a breakfast brioche bun to be filled by the diner’s choice. For me, it was bacon and mushrooms; the quality was spotless.

The team was in early, in preparation for a full lunch and dinner cover. We set off this time, heading back via Helmsley as the sun tried to perforate the morning fog.

The Owl is a great place, situated well for access to the coast and the moors, a stone's throw from Thirsk, Pickering and Ripon, and with its wonderful rooms and great cuisine, I would advise booking quickly. It won’t be long before it becomes popular as the news of this historic drovers’ inn's renaissance spreads wide and far.

The Owl at Hawnby
Hill Top, Hawnby, YO62 5QS
01439 330180

More information here
For information on rooms click here