“Gatropub” tends to send a shudder down my spine. David Eyre, owner of the Eagle in Clerkenwell, coined the term in 1991 and a movement was born. We certainly needed pubs to up their game on the food front (chicken in a basket, anyone?) but it’s become a ubiquitous expression. I’m all for sticky-carpeted old boozers smartening themselves up and offering nice food, but call it what it is. A pub. With food.
Chef/owner Lee Marshall has had a long history in the hospitality business so he should know what he’s doing. His CV includes the Design House at Dean Clough in Halifax which earned three AA Rosettes, and together with his father Lester he ran The Rock in Holywell Green.
So the Hare & Hounds shouldn’t be a stretch for him. It’s a fine old stone building with kerb appeal. A spanking new decked area draws drinkers on this stifling night. A sign in the porch tells drinkers to turn left and diners to the right.
The dining room is comfortable and welcoming but the decor is slightly odd. A bit like the food, it feels as if two people with differing skills have been put in charge; some old features have been kept and the bar area has been Farrow & Balled in sage. The old chimney breast has been upholstered in orange leather, padded and buttoned, a bit oddly. Orange is a theme, with flashes of it on chairs and blinds.
A wall of empty higgledy-piggledy picture frames greets you in one of the dining rooms, along with a series of bright, splashy paintings. On another wall round the corner, a Banksy-esque caricature and in a third room, a huge, moody landscape. Unaccountably there are potted mini hedges on window ledges. It’s perplexing.
However random the decor is, the menu is definitely joined-up and reads really well. “Small bites” at £2.50 each include deep-fried cauliflower with garlic mayo, sticky chipolatas and goujons with tartare sauce. Half a dozen “small plates” (have one or two of these if you’re not there for the full monty) feature the likes of liver, bacon and onion (“chicken liver parfait, bacon joint, glazed shallot, mini loaf”) curried mushroom beignets with candy stripe beets and the magnificently named Prawnography (‘the best prawn cocktail ever’) which of course I order. They’re not wrong. It IS the best prawn cocktail ever; instead of a glass full of tiny pink prawns drowning in an even pinker Marie Rose sauce, there’s a couple of huge, succulent beauties cooked in the lightest tempura batter, another couple lurking under fabulously sweet slow roast Heritage tomatoes and crisp Romaine leaves, and with a knowing nod to the trad Barbie pink cocktail, a tiny pile of them at the bottom. It’s a simple, colourful, fabulous plate of food.
Prawnography isn’t the only joke; it becomes clear that someone in the kitchen is having fun when the ham hock starter arrives in a shallow tin (with the lid!) It’s accompanied by a “slow cooked” hen’s egg; Marshall can’t resist flexing his cheffy muscles, but that’s no bad thing when it produces a cup of warm pea veloute which has such depth of colour and flavour it sends us reeling. Another cute touch is a ball of warm homemade bread that comes in a little drawstring sack.
Two cracking dishes are followed by two ordinary ones. My seabass with mustard crust is perfectly edible but a bit dull. The creamed leeks it sits on are fine, but the potato “terrine” looks and tastes like it belongs to a different restaurant, where they’ve run out of salt. The chicken and mushroom dish looks fine in that currently popular Scandinavian sort of way but is strangely tasteless and a little dry. We should have asked for a jug of gravy. There’s something called a bon bon on the plate; it’s a snooker ball sized, deep-fried chicken-y thing, again, under-seasoned. It adds nothing to an unremarkable plate.
We’re back on form with puds; dark chocolate pavé is sublime, a sharp pear sorbet the perfect plate mate and a yoghurt crisp more than a good scooper-upper. Also on the dessert menu, the Hare STP and strawberry cheesecake, and if the knickerbocker glory is as original as prawnography it’ll be a winner.
Marshall’s fine dining Design House somehow didn’t work. It was too formal – despite gracious, friendly service there was a sense that you had to sit up straight and whisper. There isn’t any of that here; it’s much more relaxed and accessible. Service is still lovely though, the young waiters willing to go into the kitchen and ask how things are done, when they don’t know. The menu works well and the actual food ALMOST works – but something needs to happen to pull it together and bring all the courses to the same standard before the gastropub moniker can be safely used.
Hare & Hounds, Denholme Gate Road, Hipperholme, Halifax HX3 8JQ. 01422 751995, thehareandhoundshipperholme.co.uk. Food served: Tuesday to Friday: 12-9pm; Saturday: 9am-9pm; Sunday: 9am-7pm. Dinner for two with wine £75.