The bijou Brief is an appetising law unto itself, writes Dave Lee
While walking through the middle of Hull with my three- year-old son recently, down the magnificently named Land of Green Ginger, the little lad informed me that he was hungry. As anyone with children will know, when a toddler wants food you feed them as soon as possible, if only to avoid the inevitable constant stream of whining which results from those needs not being met within about 20 seconds. Luckily, we were just a few feet away from The Brief, a quirky little eaterie that I have developed an unexpected soft spot for since it appeared earlier this year.
Now, The Brief really shouldn’t work; it’s tiny (seating 20), it’s in the wrong part of town (a side street on no-one’s route to anywhere), it has no parking, no discernible chef and the menu is misspelt and unclear. In short, it runs on barely contained chaos. Yet it serves really, really nice tapas for very little money. I’ve been three times now and every time I’ve had a different selection of dishes and every time they’ve all been great. Just because something shouldn’t work doesn’t mean it doesn’t. If you see what I mean.
The Brief is run by India Parris; her parents manage a couple of pubs in the area and when her dad thought he’d spotted a gap for a bistro in the middle of Hull he converted a former solicitor’s office and installed India to look after it. At first glance, the emphasis seems to be on sandwiches and jacket potatoes aimed squarely at the passing accountants and legal types who occupy the surrounding streets. Forget all that, though. Most of the sit-down customers are actually there for the daily updated five for £10 tapas specials.
The offerings are typical of the sort of things you’d get on holiday in Spain – such as patatas bravas, garlic mushrooms, anchovies, tortilla and chorizo – but they’re made, where possible, from local ingredients and with the kind of care you’d hope for from people desperate to please.
The dishes appear to be selected – in an act of splendidly unaffected abandon – from a couple of tapas recipe books perched on a shelf behind the counter. No attempt is made to disguise this charming amateurism, and you get the feeling that there is a headstrong spirit of all of us being in it together and if we all pull together then we can maybe make some food.
This may sound awful, but it isn’t meant to; I find this level of honesty thoroughly refreshing and if you tried the little dishes of food the untrained kitchen staff (they have food safety certificates, but nothing else) turn out you’d agree.
It’s all great value for money, too. Me and the little fella had bread with dipping oil, five tapas, a bruschetta, a baked camembert, a very tasty roasted pepper and chorizo flatbread, two halves of Estrella (for me, not him) and a couple of lemonades (for him, not me) and paid just under £30. All of it was well made and tasty and, considering my son can be quite picky, nothing was over-spiced or underwhelming.
OK, if I’m being picky, then the bruschetta had way too much rocket and not enough Serrano ham and was, weirdly, dribbled with sweet chilli sauce, but it was still perfectly tasty. The flat bread was sloppily impossible to eat without a knife and fork, but once I’d navigated it to my mouth there were no complaints. The patatas bravas could have used a tiddle more salt, so I added some and it was fine. I’ll tell you what, though, it’s still better than some food I’ve had in much more established “proper” restaurants.
On an evening, candles are lit and the menu is extended to include larger plates of specials. “A fish stew, a pasta thing, that sort of stuff,” is how India described to me the range of dishes usually available. No more detail was forthcoming and, quite frankly, I didn’t want there to be. I quite like the idea of turning up and being presented with whatever options the team decided to knock together that day. It’s like those menu-less bars you find in the Costas with someone banging pans in the diddy kitchen out back and creating delicious little dishes of food which they then drop in front of the diners with a casual, matter-of-fact aplomb.
Because the dining space is so small, it’s also a marvellous place for people watching. At one point the table next door held two fantastic old Hessle Road type women. One had brought the other in to show off her favourite new find. “It’s grand, isn’t it?” she said as they negotiated their way round a wobbly corner table. ‘They make a lovely campuccino and the toilets are immaculate.’ Alan Bennett would have loved it.
Will The Brief be everyone’s cup of tea? No. There is absolutely no finesse, the air of near-chaos will unsettle many and the décor can only be described as naïve – like they’ve fired some kind of cannon containing shabby chic ephemera at the walls and then stuck random postcards in the gaps. There are images of bullfighters, the Colosseum, Molly Malone’s statue and – most bizarrely – Hull’s Holy Trinity church on fire.
However, I think The Brief symbolises the growing confidence prevalent in Hull at the moment, where would-be restaurateurs appear to be constantly pitching up in seemingly unsuitable premises and just going for it. The innate spirit of independence forcibly bred into the population for generations has dovetailed with the determination of citizens too young to remember the fishing industry to create an environment that fosters risk-taking and anticipates success rather than expecting failure.
Yes, I admit, this is a lot of social philosophy to pile onto a simple 20-seater tapas cafe, but The Brief is as great example of the brio currently rampaging through the city’s streets and buildings. It’s not high brow, it’s not haute cuisine, but it is dead ’Ull and it thoroughly deserves all the success it’s enjoying.
• The Brief, 11A Manor Street, Hull HU1 1YP. 01482 217721. Open Monday to Thursday, 9am-5pm; Friday 9am-11pm, Saturday, 10am-11pm.