It was just au revoir. Jill Turton revisits La Grillade, relaunched in Ripon. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
Dear Alan Bennett,
Just to let you know that La Grillade, one of your favourite restaurants, that you feared had closed for good, has reopened, not in Leeds as before, but in Ripon. Don’t worry, the menu is much as it was during our 33 years in Leeds. All your favourites are back: steak, frites, boudin noir, salads, cheeses, crème brulee, apple tart. We have just the table for you with a splendid view of Ripon Cathedral’s great West Front. The Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived and a glass is waiting for you. Yours Guy
Guy Martin-Laval hasn’t yet written in such terms to Alan Bennett, though he intends to. Bennett was a regular at La Grillade in Leeds, as evidenced by a framed photo of Bennett with a pig on a lead and the inscription, “To Guy, in whose restaurant I have often made a pig of myself.”
Well, now he and we can once more make pigs of ourselves, because the near legendary La Grillade is back from the dead.
For anyone who wasn’t on restaurant-watch back in 1981, La Grillade was an unpretentious, rambling French bistro in the basement of what was the Wellesley Hotel on Wellington Street. It was presided over by the sometimes irascible Guy Martin-Laval, and became the haunt of businessmen, lawyers, media types and passing celebrities fresh from the YTV studios up the road.
Later, Guy opened the Waterhole on Great George Street, where we quaffed his cellar and splashed out on pots of boiling oil in which we dipped raw fillet steak in the name of fondue, served with a celeriac remoulade which in my view has never been bettered. He had a brief Napoleonic expansion onto East Parade but soon retreated back to his Wellington Street bunker.
The décor at La Grillade began with checked tablecloths and plastic vines and was primped up and down the years to white linen cloths and black and white photographs of Paris. An intimate underground warren, but it was the impervious Gallic service, the steak frites, the lacy French fries and Guy himself that brought his regulars back time and again.
Until in 2013 came a perfect storm of a rent rise, a spat with the landlord, and Leeds health and safety complaining that his steak tartare, that French classic of chopped raw beef and raw egg yolk, was unsafe. Good job they never inspected that boiling oil in the Waterhole.
So he closed the doors in Wellington Street and took himself home to France. Un Grand Départ? There it might have ended in contented, stress-free retirement, but you can’t keep a good restaurateur down and when Guy was back in Yorkshire, visiting Ripon, he saw the premises and saw their potential.
Now he has a smart new restaurant in a prime pitch at the cathedral end of Kirkgate. Painted chalky blue with the familiar Grillade logo etched into the window, it looks like a well-dressed Parisian bistro. A waitress in spotless whites greets and seats us and there is Guy, in his element, steering the cheese chariot and looking as content as I have ever seen him.
Page one of the menu announces: “1981-2014 A Passion for Grilling for 33 years”, and the grills are all there just as fondly remembered: rib-eye, fillet, minute steak, Chateaubriand for two, beef rib for two. It’s not just steak, but duck breast, chicken, lamb cutlets, salmon, sea bass. Specials are written up on the blackboard: tomato and fennel soup, an omelette, cabillaud, beef daube and duck confit.
For old times’ sake we start with crevettes thermidor – it may look ironic in these sous vide days, but how can you go wrong with prawns, Gruyere cheese and brandy? Answer: not here. This, in a ceramic scallop shell, is rich, bubbling and gorgeous. Equally satisfying is salade Bordelaise, a perfectly poached egg on top of frisée leaves, chunks of bacon and proper, freshly fried croutons.
And the grills? The rib-eye is uncompromisingly rare with garlic butter, frites as thin and crisp as ever and a neatly dressed salad. Spot on. Similarly the blackboard special of confit duck leg with soft, yielding meat and a wonderfully crisp skin, served simply with Boulangere potatoes and a green salad.
If it all sounds a touch retro, that’s the point. It’s a quintessential French bistro seamlessly transplanted to North Yorkshire. It ain’t broke so don’t fix it.
Desserts are more French classics of crème brûlée, chocolate mousse, apple tart, ices, sorbets and cheese. If the French can’t make a good crème brûlée who can? This one is exemplary with a rich, creamy base and the thinnest layer of burnt caramel to crackle with a spoon.
The famous cheeseboard is wheeled in: Vacherin Mont d’Or, Comté, a goat’s cheese, a powerhouse blue, and a Brie all in their pomp. Choose three or five with bread. The French don’t do biscuits.
As it was just days after “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé”, it seemed fitting to order a chilled glass of the berry-fresh new release and toast Guy Martin-Laval. La Grillade est arrivée. Santé.
• La Grillade, 25 Kirkgate, Ripon, North Yorkshire HG4 1PB. 01765 604299, www.lagrillade.co.uk
Price: approx £35 plus wine and service. Open: Wednesday to Saturday, 12-2.30pm and 6-9.30pm; Sunday, 12-2.30pm and 5.30pm-8.30pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday.