Kitchen 91, Hebden Bridge: The authentic Italian restaurant in Yorkshire which started life in a basement

It started in a basement across the road from a pub and now serves up the authentic taste of Italy from enlarged premises in Hebden Bridge. Amanda Wragg hails the offerings of Kitchen 91.

It began with pizza. If you happened to be in the (CAMRA award-winning, community-owned, convivial) Fox & Goose of an evening, enjoying a pint or two of their excellent cask ale, and got the munchies, you could order a Margherita from a kitchen across the road and it would arrive, gently steaming, half an hour later.

Forget Dominos, this was the real deal: fabulous crust, authentic. Then came lasagne (with homemade pasta) and ragu. I was curious about what was going on behind the frosted windows in the terraced house across the road from the pub.

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‘Kitchen 91’ it said, and soon there were pictures on Instagram of immaculate looking plates of what looked like pared-down Italian classics. Turns out they were taken in the basement. There were ten tables. Could I get one of them? Could I hell.

Kitchen 91Kitchen 91
Kitchen 91

The covers have doubled in Market Street so it’s slightly easier to get in. For what seemed like forever I’ve been poking my nose round the open door of what was an unremarkable cafe as renovations were under way. After seven months of hard graft (stripping stone lintels, scraping 100 years of paint off the wooden ceiling) a spare, clean space that looks like it means business emerged, with Carrera marble work tops, white walls, crisp linen table cloths and vintage Ercol furniture.

There’s a lot here that smacks of deeply traditional Italy: a communal table, a strong nod to the Italian slow food movement and a menu you’ll find in any Italian town: antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci. It’s a set menu, so don’t expect a huge choice – in fact there’s no choice at all other than a vegetarian main course.

There are two sittings and we nabbed the 6 o’clock. Antipasti is sourdough with whipped butter and a dish of gordal olives, and a couple of glasses of wine: a buttery Pecorino and a full-bodied Montepulciano.

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Up next, butternut squash veloute the texture of velvet with oceans of flavour, the natural sweetness offset with tiny cubes of sharp pickled squash in the bottom – dig down and there they are: it’s a clever touch. Primi is essentially a plate of tomatoes and cheese, but these are Isle of Wight Heritage toms and stracciatella, a soft, creamy Puglian cheese akin to burrata. There’s a gel that’s the distilled essence of tomato, a semi-dried one that’s been hung overnight and a basil oil and olive crumb; welcome crunch comes from a herb-studded wafer - it’s summer on a plate.

Italian pork and fennel with trofie pasta at Kitchen 91Italian pork and fennel with trofie pasta at Kitchen 91
Italian pork and fennel with trofie pasta at Kitchen 91

Secondi is pork and fennel ragu with trofie pasta; I’d hazard a guess there’s been a long cook on the sauce, it’s bursting with flavour, sticky and dense, with a quenelle of ricotta shot through with lemon zest brightening the whole thing up. The non-meat choice is Tuscan – pappa al pomodoro, a tomato and bread soup with herb tordelli (a type of ravioli) and fresh tomato ragu with spinach cream.

In the open kitchen is Poppy Cartwright, and front of house is her husband Matthew Shelton. They’re from York and moved to Hebden Bridge seven years ago, and started cooking food for friends and family in their neat terraced house, graduating to supper clubs for paying guests around 12 months ago.

When an empty building on Market Street came up, they jumped at it. The Italian gene is strong; Poppy’s grandmother was Sicilian and Poppy stood at her mother’s knee in the kitchen. There’s incredibly precise attention to detail here which doubtless derives from her training as a couture fashion designer at the RCA – and it’s the only training she’s had, no cookery school or college, just (and I use the word advisedly because it’s over-used) passion – with a generous side-helping of natural ability. She fizzes with energy and it all gets channelled into her food. Oh, and the crockery, which she makes herself, as if she hasn’t got enough on.

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Dolci is Madagascar vanilla panna cotta; it’s textbook, with perfect wibble and again, huge depth, helped along with a fabulous strawberry gel sorbet and a delicate tuile like an angel’s wing.

Madagascar vanilla panna cotta, strawberry gel sorbet and tuile at Kitchen 91Madagascar vanilla panna cotta, strawberry gel sorbet and tuile at Kitchen 91
Madagascar vanilla panna cotta, strawberry gel sorbet and tuile at Kitchen 91

Some say that the set menu has had its day. The same folk might not ‘get’ an Italian tasting menu; certainly it’s a first for me. But the current climate (soaring energy costs/food inflation/customer uncertainty) would suggest that the days of a three-page menu are gone – which restaurateur can afford to buy and keep the amount of ingredients required, and still deliver a decent dinner? More and more places are restricting their offer and the days they open, and to me it makes sense, both on the financial and the work/life balance front. There’s little wastage too, if you know how many covers you’re catering for, and what you’re going to give them. And sometimes, isn’t it good to walk into a place and say ‘just feed me please’?

The price point at Kitchen 91 is spot on: £56 for four courses of this standard is very good indeed, though the wine is a bit speny: £10.40 for a 175 ml glass is steepish.

There are two sittings on Friday and Saturday, and Sunday lunch was just starting, with the likes of shin of beef and chianti ragu followed by blossom honey parfait – more good value at £34 for four courses. I felt ever-so-slightly rushed to finish, though I was warned that the 6 o’clock table would be required again at 8pm. But it’s early days, they’d been open just a week and I’m sure they’ll tweak the timings. It’s a tiny grumble, because this elegant, flavoursome food makes my heart go boom. It’s the sort of cooking that looks simple, but is, in fact, fiendishly difficult to achieve; it’s easy to put a lot of things on a plate, not so easy to put a few. Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstein on the stereo is the finishing touch that makes this one classy joint. Bravissimo!

Kitchen 91, 35 Market Street, Hebden Bridge HX7 6AT t: 07870 478173

Open Friday/Saturday evenings, Sunday lunchtime. Booking by phone only.



FOOD 5/5