Robert Owen Brown has crossed the Pennines to open at The Hinchliffe. He might yet be Manchester’s finest export says Amanda Wragg.
It’s not as if we’re short of openings in Calderdale. The magnificent Grade I listed Piece Hall threw open its doors on August 1 after a £19m renovation and next door the transformed, stunning Square Chapel Arts Centre is buzzing – we’ve even opened a spanking new library when all over the country, doors are banging shut. So talk of a ‘celebrity’ chef venturing over the Pennines from Manchester to open an out-of-the-way pub hidden in a Calder valley? Small meat.
Robert Owen Brown’s culinary career is colourful. He’s run supper clubs, pop-ups and gastro pubs but is probably best known for his residency at the Mark Addy, a well-reviewed restaurant on the Irwell in Salford, which sadly flooded in 2014 and has since been shut. I loved it. Brown cooked food that at the time you couldn’t get anywhere else in the North; he’s a disciple of Fergus Henderson of St John in London, the nose to tail supremo, and on the menu in Manchester was tripe, faggots, bone marrow, hogget – unfashionable beasts and cuts, but in Brown’s skilled hand, made into interesting, tasty dishes, and very Manchester. Which begs the question; will his style of cooking travel?
In recent years the ‘Hinch’ has had a tricky time, changing hands every five minutes – a shame, since it’s a fabulous old building in a stunning spot. In the summer there are few better places in the county to sit outside, and in the winter, open fires belt out cheer. New owners, the Middleton brewery JW Lees have spent a pretty penny creating a sort of country inn meets cabin-in-the-woods.
Keen to experience the man’s food again, when I booked I asked if Brown was going to be in the kitchen. “Yes,” came the response. Turns out he wasn’t. I’m going to draw a veil over the dinner we had. To call it a pale imitation does a disservice to imitations. I’m sure whoever was in charge on the night did their best, but right now it’s not enough. Disappointed doesn’t really cover it.
So I had a hissy fit (in the car) and after I’d calmed down, went back for lunch two days later; Gladly, Brown was in his rightful place and the food was of another order altogether.
The menu is short and sweet, and features the likes of steamed Asian spiced dumplings, flash fried liver with mustard mash and Morecambe Bay cockles and clams. His ‘soon to be famous’ Craggy egg, a black pudding and sausage meat pickled scotch egg is rolled in crumbled pork scratchings and works magnificently – it’s soft, crisp and a tiny work of art. But the dinky wooden pirate’s chest it comes in adds nothing.
He’s no stranger to lard, and on the second visit the minced beef and onion pie was a little beauty (oh, the pastry!) and a huge improvement on the chicken and mushroom served up previously. Crispy black pudding potato cake had the perfect ratio of blood to spud and was beautifully seasoned, the softly poached egg spilling out as it should, the tarragon butter sauce punching through the richness.
Fishy pick ‘n’ mix is a witty riff on a seaside snack, with tempura whitebait and pieces of pearly cod served up in a paper bag with a wicked tartare sauce. A chunk of ox tongue ‘nothing like you had as a kid’ suggests front-of-house Kieran (see below) is bread crumbed and shallow fried, and arrives with silvery anchovies and a sharp lemon mayo and you’re right, Kieran, I’ve never put anything like that in my mouth before, it really was quite sensational (and at £6, an absolute steal).
General manager and altogether top chap Kieran Douglas-Clark has worked with Brown for many years, and followed him across the border. He’s everywhere and nowhere, as the song goes – there when he’s required, gone when he’s not. What an asset. He mentioned having difficulty finding good local staff, which would account for the patchy service. They’re open seven days a week and all day for food; they don’t need me to tell them that they need an army.
There’s more whimsy; ‘offaly good sandwich: ‘roast rare breed pork – all the best of the beast, crispy fried with chipotle dressing and soft leaves’ and Brown’s signature Vimto trifle. His crispy squirrel hasn’t made it to the menu yet – but it’s only a matter of time. Brown likes to shoot, and not just squirrels, so who knows what will end up on your plate. He champions local and seasonal, so the beef and pork is from Rudd Clough Farm – almost visible from the pub – but he’s not shy of bringing octopus from Cornwall and Var salmon from the Faroe Islands.
We LOVE your style, exiled Chef Brown, your menu is inimitable and affordable, and when the kinks have been ironed out the Hinch is going to be as compelling a destination as the Piece Hall. Can I make a plea though? When your name’s over the door and folk are coming to eat your food, and you’re a new kid on the block, you really need to be in the kitchen. #Justsaying.
The Hinchliffe, Cragg Vale, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 5TA. 01422 883256, thehinchliffe.co.uk
Open: Monday to Saturday: 12pm–9pm, Sunday: 12pm–6pm.
Food (2nd visit) 5/5
Drink selection 5/5