Squeezed like grouting into the deep estuary of the River Esk, the port of Whitby offers a wealth of dining options as long as your horizons are limited to fish and chips. This monoculture has been successfully challenged by an unusual café, which has been Trip Advisor’s No.1 or No.2 in Whitby since it opened in June 2014. Located on a sliver of a street that brings to mind Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley (you can get a raven-topped cane and a coffin-shaped backpack in the Great Goth shop opposite), Rusty Shears has windows crammed with weird old scientific gubbins and a sign reading ‘Licensed to sell amazing cakes.’
‘Oh, don’t be such a glum-bum,’ my wife responded to my sniff. Inside, it appeared that the local populace shared her enthusiasm. On a soggy lunchtime, the quirkily decorated dining rooms of Rusty Shears were packed with customers tucking into seven kinds of freshly made cakes and 30 different teas, including Bertie Wooster’s beloved oolong. Prompting rather more interest, at least in this reviewer, was a somewhat unusual offering for a café: 30-odd rare and curious brands of gin.
Seated under a multi-coloured canopy of beaded lampshades and observed by a pair of gilded putti, we tucked into a brace of pre-lunch G&Ts. Alison’s involved a grape-based French affair called G’Vine while mine was a delicately perfumed intoxicant entitled Bathtub Gin. Rain-lashed Whitby suddenly became Cap d’Antibes. ‘I love it,’ said my wife regarding her glass garnished with parsley leaves and pink grapefruit. ‘You can make me another when we get home.’
Moving on to the daily specials, Alison had carrot soup with a swirl of cream. ‘Lovely and buttery.’
‘And very moreish,’ I added after pinching a spoonful. Sadly, the best carrot soup I’ve ever tasted was snatched away after I sneaked a second scoop. My chickpea soup with harissa, sour cream and coriander was rounded, rich and spicy with a judicious touch of heat. Built on a profoundly flavoured stock, it was a Maghrebian marvel. Days later, I am still relishing it in my mind.
I stayed in North Africa for a main course of Moroccan lamb parcels. Inside delicate, flaky pastry, morsels of meat were sweet and spicy like a medieval mince pie. Alison went for ‘tart of the day’, which took the form of a cauliflower cake. Akin to a tortilla, it was topped with parmesan and red onion on top and impressed with sesame and nigella seeds on the side. For £6.95, both dishes including generous helpings of red cabbage coleslaw and crunchy, fresh mesclun with sweet honey dressing. Similar value was apparent in the wine list, which many establishments regard as an opportunity for legitimised banditry. Aside from Pol Roger champagne at £42.95 (it will cost you £39.99 in Waitrose), the Rusty Shears wine list peaks at £14.95 for a Crianza rioja or Cloud Factory sauvignon from New Zealand.
We finished with those cakes licensed to amaze. Alison’s wedge of pistachio and lime cake (£2.95) merited Yorkshire’s highest term of praise for confectionary: ‘Nice and moist.’ My treacle tart with clotted cream was a glorious advertisement for Lyle’s Golden Syrup.
There was plenty of tempting stuff on the menu that we had to skip, such as ‘sharing boards’ (meat, vegetarian or cheese), a variety of tortillas and the best kind of no-nonsense sandwiches: Wensleydale with rhubarb chutney, homemade gammon and piccalilli and roast beef with horseradish. I’ll fess up that last was so temptingly freighted with blushing slices of sirloin that I had it as a takeaway. A very superior sarnie.
Observing the afternoon tea crowd trickle in from the rain, we oozed contentment – aside from one nagging teaser. Where did the weird name come from? So I asked the nattily bearded co-owner who served our lunch. ‘It’s from my Christian name Russell, while my partner’s surname is Shears.’ Russell Hirst (no relation) comes from a family of south London bakers. ‘I’d had enough of that so when we decided to open a café, I insisted on being front-of-house. My partner Kirsty, who previously designed underwear for M&S, does all the baking, apart from meat. I do that because she’s a vegetarian.’
I plan to return for Whitby’s Goth Weekend (4-6 November), when Russell will be serving a gin from Wisconsin called Death’s Door. One Rusty Shears speciality that we did not try is the Doggy-Chino, a frothy mix of milk and water that goes down well with canine customers. Possibly it might have lured Whitby’s most famous visitor from his customary gargle of haemoglobin. You may recall how the Transylvanian count disembarked from the wrecked vessel Demeter: ‘An immense dog jumped from the bow on to the sand.’ By Christopher Hirst
Rusty Shears, 3 Silver Street, Whitby, North Yorkshire YO21 3BU tel: 01947 605383
Around £20 per head for three-course meal with wine. Open daily 9.30am- (around) 5pm.
Food **** Ambiance ***** Service****