Earl Grey tea and sticky date pudding with Maldon salted caramel sauce. I don’t know what you call it in your house, but in our house that’s sticky toffee pudding. I’m starting to long for the days when a menu told you more or less what you were getting, and not an excuse to list every ingredient in your dish. I don’t care that my ice cream is ‘home churned’ or that the beans have been ‘garlic polished’, I only care what it tastes and looks like. In that order. Masterchef has a lot to answer for.
The handsome Malthouse in the gloriously wooded Rishworth valley threw open its doors a couple of months ago after a year’s closure, an extensive refurbishment and a menu overhaul. On an icy November night the place is invitingly lit up and as we push through the door the welcome is warm. It’s a massive space, with three big dining areas plus a drinker’s bar. The vibe is ‘country inn meets cocktail lounge’ with wood stoves, tartan carpeting, hipster filament light bulbs, distressed Annie Sloane chairs and black beams.
Whatever else I feel about the evening, it’s important to give credit to service. There are two young women and they pass every test. We’re beautifully looked after; yes of course you can move to a bigger table. Turn the music down? No problem. They know how to interpret the menu: ‘Aubergine caviar?’ An eyebrow is raised: ‘Aubergine cut into tiny pieces’.
An investment’s been made in a shiny Kopa charcoal oven; they’re the price of a small car and ‘powered by coconut fuel which produces a flameless burn, resulting in the best grilled flavoured steaks you’ll ever taste!’ trills the blurb. Sirloin and rib-eye are £19 and fillet is £23, and you choose the sauce; peppercorn, Yorkshire Blue or Bearnaise for an extra £1.50, which feels a bit tight.
We don’t choose steak. We have other fish to fry. ‘Cumin pan seared king scallops with butternut squash broth, toasted hazelnuts and crisp ham’ is one, and ‘pan roast Yorkshire wood pigeon breast wrapped in pancetta, miniature rhubarb pie and slow braised leg and pigeon stock reduction’ is another.
I don’t detect any cumin in the scallops, or butternut squash in the slightly weedy broth. The pigeon though is marvellous; perfectly cooked, the Borrower’s rhubarb pie a genius touch (the pastry is sublime!) but the leg is pointless – no meat, just a scraggy little toothpick of a thing, as you’d expect. For ‘pigeon stock reduction’ read gravy.
We’re the only diners, the couple who were finishing up when we came having gone. It’s a bit miserable, just us two in a place the size of a sports stadium. Do they get any busier than this? ‘It was packed last night,’ says our lovely waitress. I’d like to see it full, with a bit of a buzz.
The venison dish keels up and it’s clumsy, a big plate completely covered in meat, a ‘trio of Round Green Farm venison: cottage pie, roast haunch and pan fried liver’. Any one of these components would make a good dinner; all three are too much, however well cooked the venison is – and it is – nicely gamey, tender and tasty. Half of it is secreted into a napkin and taken home for tomorrow’s tea. In total contrast, the presentation of my ‘eight-hour braised outdoor reared’ pork belly is mannered, with the components of the dish placed artfully apart. The meat’s been cooked the right way, so it falls apart at the fork, but there’s no gloss to the fat – it tastes fine but it’s been standing too long. The ‘stock braised potatoes’ are well, just spuds. The Islay scallops are nicely done, and the ramekin of Madeira sauce had depth of flavour and colour.
Chef. Keep it simple. We don’t need to know all the bricks that build a dish. It’s an affectation and it’s so last year. Decide if you’re going to be fine dining or trencherman because right now it’s neither one nor the other. Less is more. And that thing you do with pea puree and the back of a spoon across a plate; stop it. Develop your own style, don’t follow the Masterchef crowd; find your own signature. Your food tastes fine, which is the best start, the main thing. Oh, and the sticky toffee pudding is very good indeed.
• The Malthouse, 270 Oldham Old Road, Rishworth, Halifax HX6 4QB. 01422 822382, malthouserishworth.co.uk Meal for two with bottle of wine £68.