For reasons that are beyond me it must be 20 years since I ate at Mustard & Punch. It simply went off my radar. It was a regular haunt and I always liked it – the atmosphere was friendly and comfortable and the food ahead of its time. Friends went recently and said, “You should go; it’s right up your street.” So we did and they’re right.
Chef/owner Richard Dunn has been a quiet presence in the kitchen for those 20 years. His style reminds me of another of my favourite chefs, the talented (and equally low-key) Simon Baker of Gimbals in Sowerby Bridge – they’re the same vintage, so perhaps no wonder their dishes have similarities, with a signature style of fresh, creative and thoughtful with an emphasis on flavour.
Both appear to be ego-free and are more interested in pleasing punters than bigging themselves up. You’re not going to see either of them on Masterchef any day soon but their skills would get them into the final. I admire celebrity chefs as much as the next person but it’s refreshing to come across modest ones.
M&P is in a handsome stone building in Honley, a muscular Huddersfield satellite which seems to have just the one unremarkable high street, although at the end of a terrace of shops is a handsome Hovis-esque cobbled street leading to the church. Knowing nothing about it sends me to Wikipedia where I learn that it has a male and female voice choir and that the long-standing agricultural show takes place on the second Saturday in June. Biff Byford of the heavy metal band Saxon was born there. There are some stocks. That’s about it. But the smart money says blaze a trail to the door; there are familiar things on the menu, but some sweet surprises too.
I’m not sure the décor’s changed much – stripped oak floors, some sage tongue and grooved walls and I think the various jars of mustard in glass cases were there two decades ago – but the vibe is very comfy, welcoming, relaxing. It’s a bistro. They make no bones about it. It’s not “faine daining” and thank the lord for that – except that actually it is more than a bistro – the food isn’t particularly rustic, and some of it is artfully placed on the plate – but I’m reluctant to give it the fine dining moniker because it so often signifies pretentious food, and is rarely the sum of its parts, and M&P is a long way from that.
A set dinner menu (two courses for £22.50, three for £24.50) includes a half bottle of wine per person. Some of the choices are stripped across the a la carte so it’s not as if they’re pushing the cheaper dishes onto it, as is often the case. There’s a choice of six starters and mains on the a la carte, and it’s quite a tough call. Roast pigeon breast, grilled Boudin Noir, butternut squash puree tempts, but I can’t resist cured ham, scallops, pea panna cotta with herb crusted soft egg. It’s a delight, a very sophisticated plate of food, pretty as a picture, all vibrant spring colours but most importantly zinging with flavour.
A plate of king prawn fritters invites you to pop them in your mouth with your fingers, which is just what we do, with a pinch of crispy celery rocket. The tempura is perfect; light and non-greasy with a crunch that makes you smile.
Mains-wise there’s venison loin, rump steaks and grilled plaice and I love the sound of beef fillet with treacle braised ox cheek and shallots, but I so rarely eat lamb (inexplicably, no one will have it in our house) it’s a shoo-in. Turns out it’s a great choice, not just because the meat is tender and wonderfully flavoursome, but the dish throws up some unusual combos which don’t always work, but do here. The pink lamb sits on a sweet yellow pepper puree, and in a little pot is a lamb hotpot topped with grilled goats cheese. Lamb with peppers and cheese? In Greece, maybe, but also in the Pennines as it happens. Whitby cod with buttered asparagus, poached egg and Hollandaise is wonderfully soothing, the pearly fish flaking at the fork; a perfectly judged plate of food.
A word about service. Sometimes, it’s only when it’s as seamless as this that I’m reminded how important it is. Rachel Howard is manager/front of house, a cheerful, smiling presence, gliding around, looking after everyone. She’s there when you want her and not when you don’t. If they run the check-back thing (the really annoying, “And how was your starter?” 30 seconds after they’ve put it on the table) it was so subtle I didn’t notice it. Waitress Gemma is charming and efficient too; I’ll wager she’s had some good guidance. Turns out Rachel was a BR “trolley dolly” for 20 years – no wonder she’s so good with people, she’ll have seen some things.
Desserts deliver; strawberries with white chocolate mousse and raspberry sorbet is fresh, tangy and summer on a plate. Glazed lemon tart with chocolate ice cream is one of the most simple, elegant puddings I’ve in a while, and one of the most delicious. There’s sticky toffee pud in evidence too, plus a bunch of “artisan” cheeses.
Thank goodness for unpretentious neighbourhood restaurants like Mustard & Punch and Gimbals, all serving consistently good, affordable food minus the gastro-gimmickry, and all intent on giving us the best possible night out.
Meal for two, three courses each and a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at £22 was £84.00.
Mustard & Punch, 6 Westgate, Honley, HD9 6AA. 01484 662066, www.mustardandpunch.co.uk