Like a lot of satellite Halifax suburbs ravaged by the death of industry, it had little to recommend any time spent there – it didn’t have any of Hebden’s hippy credentials and Todmorden was still in Lancashire.
A scuzzy river ran through it and Rochdale Road to the M62 was jammed with lorries.
The slow process of gentrification began and things started to look up when Janet and Simon Baker converted a handsome old tobacconist shop into a restaurant, and the wonder that is Gimbals was born 26 years ago.
Folk came from miles around, other businesses grew around them and the town started to thrive. Sowerby Bridge was on the map. Today Gimbals is a private dining restaurant and a rather good deli selling all manner of fabulous homemade food and store cupboard staples, and next door, Engine is a tastefully and extensively refurbished old boozer.
Co-owners Wil Akroyd and Mark Kemp opened in August 2018; Kemp was one-time right-hand man to Simon Shaw at his iconic-for-a-reason El Gato Negro up the road in Ripponden. Kemp and Akroyd met at that breeding ground for chefs-who-went-on-to-do-better-things, Riccis in Halifax.
Just when I think I’ve had enough of small plates, the menu drops and I want everything on it. It bristles with the likes of red curry cod fritters, Korean spring rolls, Moroccan pulled lamb and Baharat koftas and it would be easy to think “oh, they’ve taken their inspiration/filched ideas from Spain, Italy, Asia and France and fused them”. Well that’s exactly what they’ve done and they’ve totally pulled it off.
Crab potato chips are just that – homemade ‘Pringles’ loaded with the sweetest crab meat in miso mayo, blobs of avocado puree and some aromatic micro herbs, all conveniently mouth-sized, just as neckable and pretty as a picture.
“Beetroots” reminds me of a fave dish at the Moorcock (just up the hill from here) – earthy roast beets with salty feta, floral with orange and dill and roast hazelnuts – and goes down a treat with a glass of aptly named Rioja Blanco Tremendus.
I’m not a massive fan of gyozas (it’s a texture thing) but can’t resist anything with sobrassada and anyway referencing China and Spain with a whiff of India (with a makhani sauce) is seductive. Shouldn’t work, but works: sticky and sweet, sour and hot; they shimmer with flavour.
Chraimeh – a generous and perfectly seared chunk of sea bream atop a rustic stew of giant butter beans, peppers, tomatoes and capers – is a mighty dish, easily good for two greedy eaters. And if like me you’re wondering, Chraimeh is a traditional spicy sweet fish dish of the Jews of Tripoli.
All for under a tenner. Always – always – order albondigas if you see them. You can judge the cut of a restaurant’s jib by the quality of its meatballs. Here? Faultless. Meat so finely minced it melts in the mouth and good depth of fiery flavour in the fritada sauce.
Dish of the day for me is cauliflower and Manchego croquetas; feather-light, fresh and softly spicy. And what’s this they’re perched in? Worcestershire caramel? I’ve no idea how it’s done, but it should be bottled and available on prescription.
FOH Wil Akroyd works the room consummately – he’s unflappable, anchoring the whole thing together with an easy charm and a safe pair of hands. Worth mentioning is the wine list; I’m not the person to ask, but my dining companion tonight is, and if he says the list is good, it’s good. There are a handful of terrific cocktails too, one or two good sherries and a bath full of gin.
I’ve over-ordered. I always do. Subsequently there’s no room for dessert but if there was, orange and almond cake (caramel, white miso gelato, raspberry gin coulis) is what I’d have scarfed.
Also available: baked white chocolate cheesecake, STP and rhubarb & custard panna cotta. Veggies and vegans will do well here – they’re not an afterthought and the “global small plate vision” is a lot more cohesive than it sounds and doesn’t jar at all.
There’s a hint of theatre with the open kitchen and chefs darting around but it’s not for show – there’s some serious creating going on here. Kemp understands the marriage of flavours and textures; these are really energetic and confident plates, made with an enthusiasm for ingredients and methods.
It’s not called Engine Social Dining for nothing – it feels and is a truly companionable experience – good food and wine, a vibrant space and clued-up service.
Little pleases me more than hearing a contented babble rising across the floor and staff who seem genuinely glad to see us all.
I’m reminded of eating in restaurants and bars abroad (remember that?) and there is something continental about this place – narrow your eyes to a squint, avoid looking out onto Rochdale Road and you could easily be in Lisbon.
Engine Social Dining, 72 Wharf Street, Sowerby Bridge, HX6 2AF. Tel: 01422 740123, www.enginesocial.co.uk. Open: Tuesday, 4-9pm; Wednesday to Saturday, 12-9pm; Sunday and Monday, closed.