A hundred years ago and in another life, the much-loved Berties Bistro in Elland was one of the few places in West Yorkshire to be seen. What passed for the Halifax glitterati hung out there drinking wine at the bar, eating rustic French food and smoking like soldiers. There were shoulder pads, hair was big and we all had Filofaxes. If you’re thinking Del Boy and Trigger in that priceless West End wine bar sketch you’re not far off.
Thankfully we’ve all moved on; Berties still exists but as a classy party venue and catering outfit, the original restaurant became La Cachette (“hiding place”, though it’s anything but) and a different regime is in place. Chef/patron Jonathan Nichols has held the reins since 2003 and his credentials are impressive. He trained at Bradford & Ilkley College, worked under Eric Claveau at Holdsworth House and co-owned the crowd-pleasing Bradleys in Huddersfield for a while.
Rocking up on a clear, nippy autumn evening, La Cachette glows; light spills out of the double-fronted exterior windows giving a glimpse into a building full of people having a good time. The augeries are good. Nothing fires my appetite more than the muffled murmur of chat and distant clink of glass on glass.
Walking in I detect a miniscule heart-sink; the décor is a bit dated and the walls are rag-rolled. The ephemera is slightly at odds too; French posters adorn every inch of wall space while the lights and mirrors are Edwardian. It’s as if they’ve pulled back from creating a 100 per cent Gallic vibe so as not to scare anyone. But there are booths and banquette, a sea of starched white linen and gleaming cutlery and despite the disparity in decor it’s a comfortable and agreeable space.
And here’s a very good thing followed by a very bad thing; the welcome is courteous and warm and stays so throughout the evening. In fact service is exemplary and gratifyingly discreet; the benchmark for how good it should be everywhere.
The very bad thing is the piano. Now you might think that some ivory tinkling in a bistro would be just the job. Turns out it’s a “retro evening” (whaaat?) so the tunes being banged out (volume turned up to eleven) owe more to Morrissey, Human League and (horror of horrors) Bonnie Tyler than Aznavour and Piaf. Why did no-one tell me about this when I booked? What’s the concept behind this? Don’t get me wrong, the lad can play, it’s just why 80s rock and why here?
The menu doesn’t scream provincial eaterie, though there are one or two dishes you’d expect to find; onion soup, bourguignon and chateaubriand are present and correct but there’s also Koftas, Kievs, sausage and mash and fish cakes, again suggesting that we might not be able to handle a full-on French offering.
Elsewhere, choose from asparagus spears with crisp Serrano ham and hollandaise, pan fried lambs kidneys and a Greek salad. Mains-wise, cheese glazed haddock, slow cooked belly pork and butter roast breast of chicken don’t offer any surprises. There are three cuts of steak, (choose your own sauce) plus rose veal rump. Vegetables are extra and include ‘French style peas’ and dauphinoise at £3.25 for a small wodge.
French onion tart is a delightful starter, the pastry perfect, the micro leaves punchy. Crisp fried battered Brie with tomato and chilli jam likewise, the batter golden, light and fatless, the cheese spilling out nicely. Then it goes a bit downhill. Mum’s chosen the chicken Kiev for old times’ sake. Sadly it’s an unattractive brown lump and somehow manages to be dry despite the river of molten Yorkshire Blue cheese within.
My Round Green Farm venison comes on Jerusalem artichoke risotto which is one of the most thrilling mouthfuls of food since the chocolate chilli at Pinche Pinche. It’s creamy, nutty, smoky and utterly delightful. It almost makes up for the shortcomings elsewhere. The venison is seared nicely, pink on one side but uncooked on the other, as if chef has forgotten to turn it over. A solicitous enquiry from our lovely waiter (he could see I was struggling) finds it back in the pan for a minute and returned to the table tout suite in perfect shape. And my plate appears to have been freighted with risotto. Every cloud...
Dessert beckons; iced liquorice parfait (made from Pontefract cakes) with blackcurrant and cassis sauce and brandy snap would be first choice followed closely by cherry clafoutis.
At the till we’re asked if everything was ok and I can’t help mentioning the sound track, which is now murdering Kate Bush.
Would I go back on a non-retro night? La Cachette’s mission statement is “we aim to produce innovative, modern French cuisine” – so if chef ditches the Kiev and concentrates on the things he does really well (I won’t forget that risotto) yes.
Two courses each with a bottle of house Sauvingon Blanc at £13.95 came to £66.15 (which includes a donation to the NSPCC – 50p but it would be nice to be asked.)
La Cachette, 31 Huddersfield Road, Elland HX5 9AH. 01422 378 833. Open Monday–Saturday, lunch: 12-2.30pm; dinner, Monday–Thursday, 6-9.30pm, Friday and Saturday, 6-10pm. ww