Denmans, Halifax: Move over the Michelin-starred big boys, small suburban restaurants like Denmans on the outskirts of Halifax are worth a visit
Let’s hear it for the suburbs. The Big Fish get their fair share of the love (I’m looking at you, Michael O’Hare and Wignall, Tommy Banks and Shaun Rankin) and I like a Michelin Starred Special Night Out as much as the next food obsessive, but let’s not forget the minnows darting around in the shallows, doing what they do quietly, just getting on with it, week on week, month on month, year on year.
Neighbourhood restaurants are the life blood of the industry, and we’ve all got our favourites: in no particular order, you’ll find me any night of the week at Coin in Hebden Bridge, Anello in Slaithwaite or Engine in Sowerby Bridge.
I don’t get often enough to Brighouse and the fabulous Brook’s, and if it’s Indian food I crave I head for the incomparable Prashad. At the seaside you’ll find me at the super-modest Finns in Guisborough, cool caff Craig’s by the Sea in Marske, and Whitby’s Pizza West is so more than just a good Neapolitana.
These unfussy, relaxed joints are the places to meet friends for a last-minute supper, a bite to eat after work and before the cinema. You don’t have to dress smartly or shine your shoes, just drag a quick comb through your hair and a (not obligatory) swipe of lippy.
I’m happy to report another added to the list. I’ve driven past Denmans in Shelf a thousand times and it wasn’t until a friend mentioned he’d been and that I’d like it that I even knew it was there. I do a little bit of ‘research’ which doesn’t throw much up so there’s only one thing for it.
We head off on a nithering night but all thoughts of keeping my coat on vanish – the welcome is warm enough to defrost the entire street.
It’s a dinky room with a bar and about 14 covers, pleasantly done out in fashionably dark, muted colours and much smarter and contemporary than I had envisaged (note to self: do try to be less pre-judgemental). Anyway it’s all soft light and tinkling glasses and cool tunes, and a menu I just want to work my way through.
There’s a canny blend of techniques and flavours, leaning into Italy but plucking ideas from much further afield.
The menu meanders through India via France with a stop-off in Spain, so expect the likes of mushroom and Baron Bigot filo Money Bag (surely an ‘homage’ to ‘godfather of the gastropub’ Denis Watkins’ signature dish at the Angel at Hetton) Jack Fruit spring rolls, Asian BBQ sauce with shredded cucumber and patatas bravas.
A dish of seared halloumi sits in a puddle of seriously spicy paprika piperade, and a nicely battered onion bhaji paired with minted raita and mango chutney hits the spot too. Across the table there’s an excellent Korean BBQ coated beef taco with crispy onions and a groovy chicken schwarma resulting in an unseemly squabble involving forks.
Elsewhere in the ‘meat’ section is kidney Turbigo, a dish I haven’t seen on a menu for decades (first cooked by French chefs for Napoleon after the self-named battle in Northern Italy says Prof. Google). From the fish section, Masala cod is a real looker and full of flavour but slightly overdone for me.
Not so the text book lobster ravioli with an insanely rich bisque and a shower of parmesan, picture-perfect with oceans of flavour – it’s contender for dish of the night along with a fabulous plate of pork. It’s a piece of tenderloin, with exquisite nduja gnocchi and a swirl of sweet basil pesto – all beautifully executed and showing the true skill of the man in the kitchen.
It’s all the work of Robert Greenwood, an experienced self-taught chef who really has done the rounds. Starting as a teenager in the kitchen of the Yorkshireman, his parent’s restaurant, future jobs included running The Tannery, a year making tapas in Majorca, time in the Lake District at the multi-award-winning Inn on the Square in Keswick and a ‘crazy’ stint in Meribel in the French Alps in one of the top 10 apres-ski bars in the world, looking after 1,000 customers a day. No wonder he’s across 14 covers in Shelf on his own with one arm behind his back and his eyes closed. Two years ago you’d have found him as head chef at True North at Dean Clough in Halifax before he took Denmans on with his mum. Deborah is out front taking the orders, waiting tables and she’s what Alan Bennett might call redoubtable, in the best possible way: smiley, brisk and no-nonsense, darting hither and thither; she’s a blur.
I’m going to pretend we didn’t have dessert because they weren’t up to the standard of the mains; I mention this to Robert and he holds his hands up, saying he’s not pudding-oriented but knows he’s got to get across it. The only reason I’m scoring a four not a five is down to the rather lacklustre crème brulee and underwhelming profiteroles.
The menu changes weekly, sometimes daily depending on what’s available and what Robert fancies cooking: ‘you should have had the Ultimate King Prawns’ he said, too late. He gets them from a local fish supplier and ‘they’re the size of your palm’. Doh!
It won’t be a surprise to most readers that the Yorkshire Post covers the cost of the meal we’re writing about. The reviewer’s first rule of thumb is ‘would I come back and pay for a meal myself?’ It’s a resounding yes. The posh glossy restaurants often steal the limelight so it’s a joy to stumble on a humble neighbourhood joint that’s at ease with itself, with good grub and a warm, inclusive vibe.
Denmans Social Dining, Wade House Road, Shelf, Halifax HX3 7PB, tel 01274 447925. Open: Wednesday to Friday, 6-11pm, Saturday, 6-10pm, Sunday 4-7.30pm. Closed Monday/Tuesday.