Promised a meal at an award-winning restaurant, Heather Barron agrees to join her husband for a day at the races

WE'RE spoiled for choice in the North-East for good restaurants and great horse racing – so combining the two is a real treat, and it doesn’t get much better than an award-winning eatery at "The Garden Racecourse".

The Club Dining Room at Ripon Racecourse has recently been awarded an exclusive ‘Visit England Excellence Award’ as part of the Racecourse Association Quality Assessment Scheme, beating many of the more prestigious courses in the UK.

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The restaurant was the only one of 60 racecourses in England and Wales to achieve a score of 90 per cent or higher, under the ‘Quality Café/Restaurant’ category.

So, we were hoping for a winner both on the track and in the dining room when we were booked in for lunch at Ripon's second meeting of the year.

We were met with the friendliest of greetings by maitre d’ for the day, outside catering manager Yelato Coulibaly, who hails originally from the Ivory Coast. "Call me Yel” showed us to a table for two, overlooking the bandstand, while apologising for not being able to seat us overlooking the paddock.

We didn’t mind. The strains of the Wetherby Silver Band filtering through the window on a chilly bank holiday weekend was so quintessentially English that we couldn’t fail to be charmed.

The restaurant was full of happy race-goers, and well supplied by television screens, if you wanted to enjoy the racing without venturing outside. Betting assistants discretely circulated, taking bets for each race and paying out any winnings – though, regrettably, not much to us.

It’s best to pre-book your table to be sure of being seated, and for an extra £5-a-head, the table is yours for the whole day, to come and go as you please. A good idea when there’s a cold wind blowing round the stands.

Under starter’s orders, the menu offered a delicious selection of tasty-sounding dishes, including mini fish and chips with pea puree and home-made tartar sauce for £6.45, and salt-baked beetroot, feta and pickled onion salad for £5.80.

My personal racing tipster resisted his natural inclination to have the fish and chips, and chose instead the leek, potato and mature cheddar cheese soup with cheddar croutons (£4.30), to start, while I plumped for charred, cured mackerel with horseradish cream, cucumber two ways, compressed and puree (£6.85).

Both were delicious – particularly the sharp horseradish cream and fresh, cool cucumber, although the fish was a little cold to fully enjoy the flavour.

This was a minor constructive criticism that we would level again at the desserts later. I know the kitchen can’t predict what the clientele will order, but some things could do with being taken out of the fridge for a little while ahead of consumption.

However, the bottle of house rosé was delightfully dry and cold, and served with an ice bucket.

At the half-way mark, a choice of six main courses included slow-cooked pork belly with crushed new potatoes, mustard-glazed greens and a spicy puy lentil sauce (£14.65), and butternut squash, spinach and pine nut cannelloni with a fennel and lemon salad (£12.85).

There is also the chilled choice of either charcuterie or fish board platters (£14.95), served with local breads, which looked scrumptious, and plentiful, as they were placed in front of other appreciative diners.

Peter decided on the sirloin steak and baked mushroom, vine tomato, onion confit and hand-cut chips. His advice is to be very clear about how ‘medium rare’ you would like it cooked, with his being a bit on the rare side, but it didn't stop him enjoying the meal.

I stuck to the fish theme by choosing Asian-spiced sea bass fillet with onion bhaji, spinach, samphire, onion-seed potato and a curry oil dressing. It was all beautifully flavoured, and the fish perfectly cooked.

Although not normally a ‘pudding person’, I can seldom resist a crème brûlée, and, when paired with mango as it was here, I just had to say ‘oui’!

So, into the final furlong – aside from the aforementioned temperature (crème brûlée really needs to be at least at room temperature) – the dessert was lovely, with a sweet mango purée nestled beneath a smooth homemade custard, and a contrasting crisp, burnt-sugar topping.

Pete’s vanilla panna cotta was presented with roasted rhubarb gel, tuile, and ginger crumble.

The menu also offered a two-course ‘restaurant special’ for £15.45 per person, comprising a starter of Yorkshire pudding with rich onion gravy, and main course of steak and Yorkshire ale pie., topped with herb, shortcrust pastry with melange of vegetables and potatoes.

Because we had the table for the day, we popped back later in the afternoon to enjoy tea and a selection of cakes, as we didn’t have room for the full-blown afternoon tea including sandwiches and scones.

We might not have had very much success on the track, but I’d say this restaurant is deservedly first past the winning post.

FOOD FACTS:

Ripon Racecourse telephone: 01765 530530

www. ripon-races.co.uk

Food: 4/5

Ambience: 4/5

Service: 4/5

Value for money: 4/5