In a previous life as a student in Leeds there was a well-trodden pub crawl which started at the Fenton, took in Whitelocks via the Pig & Whistle and ended, messily, at the Bier Keller.
One place it never included was Big Lil’s Saloon Bar on the Headrow, a notorious drinking den where they threw drunks IN. Forty years on and we finally find ourselves in Big Lil’s, though today it’s a very different story.
The team behind the effortlessly cool Belgrave Music Hall, Simon Stevens, Ash Kollakowski and former street food chef Ben Davy, took possession of Headrow House last year with the idea of creating a hip hangout taking in a restaurant, beer hall and events and arts space.
The impressive Beer Hall sells over 60 beers from around the world, plus “the North of England’s first Pilnsner Urquell Tank Instillation” which might mean more to you than it does to me. Opposite is Ox Club which is where Big Lil was to be found all those years ago. It opened in December last year and created a wave of speculation; could a city centre eaterie based on a single concept survive? Judging by the stream of folk being turned away at six on a Friday night, it’s doing just fine.
That concept is a beast of a Grillworks grill imported from Michigan, on which most of the menu is smoked. It’s fired with cedar and apple wood and you might think that everything’s going to taste the same, but it doesn’t.
The dining room isn’t huge – in fact it’s quite intimate, unlike the cavernous Beer Hall. It’s got predictable post-industrial design tropes – the floor is scarred, polished concrete, there are a couple of RSJs, visible plumbing above you and the walls are white tiled. But any sniffiness about decor goes out of the window as the food starts to arrive.
It turns out to be an evening of thrilling taste sensations which starts off with chicken schmaltz. Fatty and salty, it’s a heart attack in a dish, but seriously sublime. I haven’t tasted anything like it since my grandma used to give me white bread dripping sandwiches when I was a kid. The bowl of olive oil and balsamic barely got a look in as we dunked chunks of fennel-spiked sour dough into the warm fat.
Scallops arrive black as the coals they’re cooked in but it soon becomes clear that it’s not about what the food looks like here. Tucked next to them in their shells are slivers of pink grapefruit, adding sharpness to the sweet scallop; clever stuff. Burrata is enjoying its moment in the sun – I had it recently on paper thin slices of blood orange and coriander seeds – here it sits on a slice of superb hay-smoked mozzarella, sprinkled with fennel and black pepper and a kick of lemon.
Elsewhere in this section of the menu is grilled mackerel, avocado, cucumber, shiso and pig cheek with confit egg yolk – it all sounds so good we dither about what to order. Don’t worry, says our waiter, if you find you want more, just shout.
Everything is squirreled away in white hot coals until it’s black on the outside, from stand-out steaks (400g salt-aged Dexter, not chosen this time but man I’m coming back for it) to the humble cauliflower. About which...
I love cauliflower and can even eat it raw. Here, it’s roasted and served with romesco sauce, almonds and sherry vinegar and looks, frankly, unimpressive. Yet it’s one of the most simple but original and rewarding dishes I’ve had in ages – it’s a hell of an assault on the taste buds and pairs perfectly with the ox cheek. I was going for the skate wing (sea purslane, nduja butter) but the ox came with bacon jam and who wouldn’t order that? It is outstanding, falling away at the fork.
This “small plates” thing divides people and not everyone can pull it off. I like both – three courses where I know where I am, but I also relish the chance to try lots of different things. I like everything that comes along here; lamb breast on a slick of polenta and chermoula, slices of paper thin beetroot dotted with goat’s curd, walnuts and scattered with chervil. No room for Hispi cabbage with anchovy and chilli or the sprouting broccoli with shallots and blue cheese; next time.
I want to work my way through puddings too; white chocolate tart, pistachio, stem ginger or baked chocolate, olive oil and orange cake; come on, it’s not easy. The waitress recommends honey panna cotta and she’s on the money. It’s got a sexy shimmy and the bite of toasted caraway seeds is a great moment, sealed for me with honeycomb crunch; an absolute belter. Lemon meringue pie is exceptional too. We stare at it for half a minute as it dissolves before our eyes.
Service is informed and chummy without being in your face. Brunch can be had at the weekend; choose from the likes of corned beef and kale hash, ricotta pancakes and of course, smoked avocado. Enter Ox Club without fear; Big Lil has definitely left the building.
• Ox Club, Headrow House, Leeds LS1 6PU. 07470 359961 www.oxclub.co.uk Food served Saturday & Sunday 11am – 3.30pm. Evening sitting Tuesday – Saturday 5pm til 10pm. Nine plates with a bottle of Kraiken Malbec £78.