My destiny seems to be to visit only fish restaurants as far from the sea as it’s possible to be. Be that as it may, you won’t find me complaining. Catch is the latest opening in what feels like Calderdale’s burgeoning food scene (Halifax is hot; haven’t you heard?) and the word is out, because on a drizzly Tuesday teatime the place is jumping. You don’t have to be a restaurateur to know that you can spend any amount of cash on gussying a place up, source the finest ingredients and steal the best service from miles around but you can’t buy atmosphere.
Lee Roberts seem to have done all the above. It’s been open a fortnight and they’ve not wasted any time. Find it “on the ground floor of the iconic Victoria Mills” or to you and me, under Andy Thornton’s architectural salvage warehouse on an unglamorous corner in West Vale. Seven o’clock, the car park’s full and there’s the sound of people partying as we walk past the fish & chip takeout at the front of the building.
There’s a rather winsome, moodily shot short film on their website telling the story of how Catch came about, entitled “It started with a fish” (a cute joke those of us of a certain vintage will appreciate); in it, Roberts wanders round a quayside in soft focus, telling us about his passion for seafood. His family, from Stockton, has been in the business one way or another for almost a century. “The story started way back in 1919 when ‘Old Granny’ Roberts started the Roberts family fish business. ‘Business’ probably wasn’t the word that came to Granny’s mind as she sold kippers from her front parlour window in Hartlepool.” I’m a sucker for this kind of tale; he had me at hello.
Let’s get one thing straight. There’s nothing subtle about Catch. It’s a big, bold, brassy ROAR of a place, and I mean that in a good way. If you’re planning an intimate dinner à deux, go somewhere else. It’s not that you have to shout, but whispering sweet nothings isn’t an option. There’s tons of clatter and chat and maybe even some music in there somewhere. We’ve all been to those snooty places where you feel you’ve got to sit up straight and behave – this isn’t one of those places.
It’s themed, of course, but don’t let that put you off – it’s done with style and a smile. Walls have those white oblong tiles (always think of public toilets, can’t help it) and the floors are a mixture of sea grass and black & white harlequin tiles. They’ve kept the original ornate ceiling props and painted the RSJs grey, and the workings of the electrics are on show, in that industrial chic sort of way. I ask about the original use of this space; “it was Andy Thornton’s rummage room, where he kept his doors,” deadpans our droll waitress. Of course. I remember now. We all used to pilgrimage here in the 80s hoping for a reclaimed pine bargain when we doing our houses up.
Comfortable padded banquettes run along one side of the long room and at the far end, an illuminated CATCH is spelt out in huge lights, like a blowsy Blackpool come-on. Sackcloth cushions bear the legend “White Sands & Blue Ocean Sunshine Beach” – it’s good to know Roberts isn’t shy of irony.
The only timid thing about Catch is the seasoning in one or two of the dishes; scallops with Whitby crab, coriander, lime and chilli dressing needs a bit more oomph (no chilli detected at all) and the roast Scottish cod (samphire, clams, garlic and white wine) a good pinch of salt. But then I’m going to keel over one day due to my salt intake.
My fail-safe seafood restaurant test is the bisque. It doesn’t have to look good but it does have to have the depth of flavour that suggests a long cook, an almost overpowering whiff of the ocean and a mouthful of fish in every spoonful. I don’t care about the gruyere crouton, although it’s decent enough here. The soup though is eye-rollingly good, the broth so rich and fishy I’m instantly transported to the coast.
The aforementioned Scottish cod (apart from needing salt) is a gorgeous dish of food, the pearly slab of fish perfectly cooked and sitting in a nice creamy, garlicky broth, with squares of spuds and a smattering of clams. My stonking great halibut steak is that lovely iridescent pink it should absolutely be, and flakes beautifully at the fork. It’s perched on a “shellfish risotto” the colour of lobster, and I don’t think I’ve eaten better – it’s got exactly the right amount of bite and is another deeply satisfying dish. A word to the wise; Yorkshire portions reign, so unless you’ve got hollow legs, don’t bother with appetisers and don’t even THINK about chips. As it is, my request to take the leftovers home is met with a smile which suggests I’m not the first person to ask.
A “luxury” prawn cocktail lands on the next table in a glass with bourbon marie rose sauce, looking lovely. Likewise dressed Whitby crab – though if that’s the starter (£8) the “whole dressed” version for mains (I like the sound of wasabi mayo!) will be the size of a Sky dish.
Elsewhere on the menu, lobster and scallop spaghetti, whole poached lobster and for the fish-averse, steak, burgers and a chickpea tagine. Let’s be honest. Vegetarians aren’t going to do well here. It’s a fish restaurant. Go elsewhere.
Puddings, if you’ve an empty corner, are along the lines of curd tart, apple pie, treacle tart and chocolate brownie, all homemade and served with ice cream. I’m something of a self-appointed expert on curd tart and I’m happy to report it’s a contender, almost knocking off top slot the current Number One, found in Signals Café by Saltburn Station.
All the while, punters are ordering takeouts at the front – not just F&C, but tempura king prawns, skate wings in batter, squid rings and shoestring fries and a spam fritter for good measure. The phone (I swear, the ring tone is a barking seal) is ringing off the hook and by nine there isn’t a free seat in the house.
Service is ubiquitously efficient and cheerful. The food is gloriously rustic, absolutely packed with flavour and whilst not cheap, given the portion size, good value. I love the over-the-top decor and the seal phone. It’s all huge fun. What’s the catch? There isn’t one.
• Catch, Victoria Mills, West Vale, Halifax HX4 8AD. 01422 310003, www.catchseafood.co.uk; dinner for two, two courses each and a shared dessert plus bottle of wine: £72.50