Malcolm Warne explains why he’s reluctant to offer recommendations, then makes an exception

THE Christmas and New Party party season is already a fading memory and, frankly, it’s good riddance.

It’s not that I don’t like Christmas, or New Year, or a good party for that matter.

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It just that everybody, when spotting that bloke from the D&S who does the food reviews, asks the same question: “So where’s the best place to eat round here, then?”

And I flatly refuse to say, which some people think is a bit rude, a bit unfestive, and they swiftly move on before I have the opportunity to explain that I’ve given up making that sort of unconditional recommendation.

It’s a mug’s game because places change hands, chefs move on and the pub or restaurant that was unbelievably good three months ago is anything but by the time that party friend pays it a visit, has a dreadful time and tells you so at the following year’s Christmas do.

I learnt this lesson – about never making the assumption that a pub’s standards will be maintained – when wanting to impress an aged relative up from London many years ago. I took her to St Cuthbert’s Inn between Scorton and Moulton in the days when the Edwards brothers were revolutionising pub food in these parts.

But when I returned, the Edwards boys had moved on (as they tended to do), the inn had changed hands and the meal was irredeemably and horribly, execrable, served in a cold, empty (word about the Edwards’ departure had got round, but not to me) pub. It confirmed every prejudicial impression my sophisticated metropolitan aunt had about food oop north. And the St Cuthbert’s Inn closed for good very shortly afterwards. It’s now a private house.

Another lesson was the restaurant in Yarm that we visited on a Saturday and by the time the review appeared the following Friday it had shut up shop. We thought it was rather good too.

So you can understand why I don’t in the main do personal recommendations.

If really pushed I will – prefaced by a qualifying “it was very good in 2011 but it’s a long time since we’ve been/don’t blame me if you get botulism” – name places where we’ve had good experiences but they are very few and far between.

One of them is the Wellington Heifer at Ainderby Steeple, just outside Northallerton. After a dodgy few years at the beginning of this century, Rob Gilpin took it on in 2012 after a year’s closure, completed a restrained not-too-trendy refurbishment and he’s still there now.

Five years ago we found it to be a cut above your average country pub. Based on our second visit just before Christmas – and general intelligence – that’s exactly what it is in 2017 and, dare I say it, well into 2018.

Almost nothing about the Heifer is absolutely outstanding but it is not a long way off as you will note from the ratings below.

The one area where it was signally impressive was the service (which funnily enough was the area of weakness five year ago). The manager, with the able assistance of just one other, covered the bar, three eating areas and a private dining room single-handedly and with the minimum of fuss. And it was busy with not a spare table in sight.

The kitchen produced food at regular and timely intervals and we could no fault with any of it.

Sylvia was in pre-Christmas frugal mode so decided against both starter and dessert, which is all very well and good but sensible eating is not very helpful for the person writing about the food. I can tell you that she liked the flavour and tenderness of her 28-day aged rump steak (cooked medium, no sauce - £16.95) and the skinny fries were exceptionally crisp and dry.

The vine tomatoes that she shovelled on to my plate were juicy sweetness personified and the large mushroom was just fine too. The diet Coke went down a storm.

Sylvia enjoyed watching me get through a pint of well-kept Black Sheep bitter, some plump and nicely bloody pigeon breast starter (£7.95) served with a fresh pear and walnut salad dressed with a little reduced balsamic glaze, then a whole fillet of seabass (£12.95), served on a bed of crushed new potatoes and spinach with a really excellent, classic caper and herby butter sauce.

Perhaps because she was getting bored by now, she didn’t really enjoy me tackling Christmas pudding (£5.25) which she can’t stand but I love (the best bit of Christmas) which was top notch and accompanied by a silky crème anglaise-style custard.

The bill was £46.90 which I realise now while writing this was short of a glass of house merlot. But I can hardly complain and I don’t feel too bad because I tipped generously.

The Heifer remains a good cut above the average and I am prepared to make a firm recommendation (subject, of course, to the terms and conditions of reading this review, probably reproduced somewhere on the website, and that you visit within three months – this does not affect your statutory rights blah, blah).

The Wellington Heifer

Ainderby Steeple, Northallerton DL7 9PU

Tel: 01609 775718

Web: thewellingtonheifer.co.uk

Open for food: noon-2pm and 5-9pm (9.30pm Saturday); Sunday noon-7pm.

Vegetarian and gluten-free options

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 9 Service 10 Surroundings 8 Value 8