You rarely get to find out the reason, but a place you’ve eaten at and enjoyed and recommended to others closes and leaves you wondering what went wrong.
I thought 1884 Cucina in Hessle was a cracker. It served enticing, authentic Italian food that genuinely measured up to anything I’d had in the likes of Florence or Milan.
I ate there a couple or three times shortly after it opened in 2018 and told everyone who’d listen how highly I regarded it. Then I started hearing reports that people didn’t share my enthusiasm, tales of diminishing quality, and then it suddenly closed in 2019. Why it suffered such a vertiginous decline, I still have no idea.
I mention it because the head chef at Cucina – Mark Langton – has returned with his own venture, Wild Sage in Beverley. Mark and partner Becky Flower (who worked alongside him as a chef) were both left out of work when Cucina went but saved up and refurbished a former veggie cafe on Lairgate with a plan to open in March last year. Then, well, we all know what happened.
Post-lockdowns, Mark and Becky have now finally opened and are running a sensibly concise menu at brunch and lunchtime, with evening service limited (for the moment) to Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
With just the two of them covering all tasks and seats for only about 20-odd people, Wild Sage most reminds me of the much-missed and equally-intimate Artisan on the Weir in Hessle, where Richard and Lindsey Johns served superb food to great acclaim for several years. Coincidentally, Artisan stood just a few yards from where 1884 Cucina subsequently opened.
The menu, too, is similar to Artisan’s; judiciously-sourced regional ingredients used in both traditional and experimental ways to create deceptively simple British and European dishes. There are half-a-dozen or so choices each for starters, mains and desserts and a few specials greeting diners on the chalk boards.
There’s also a tempting brunch menu. I had Morteau sausage hash from it on my first visit. It featured thick slices of the eponymous French sausage served with pan-fried potatoes, onion and rosemary and topped with a fried egg. It’s just one tasty ingredient piled onto another and inarguably great.
Crustacean fans will enjoy the starter of king prawns marinated in honey, ginger, soy and chilli. Supported by a salad of pak choi, carrot, spring onion and coriander, the dish is one of the handful of Asian options that occasionally find their way onto the menu.
Similarly, North Africa makes an appearance with the Moroccan-inspired chickpea salad – a nicely-balanced mound of warm chickpeas, roasted peppers, tomatoes, chilli and spinach.
A tweaked form of this salad turns up again as a base for the main of chicken supreme. The chicken is glazed with saffron and honey and the whole thing is dressed with lemon and thyme. It’s a very satisfying dish, with contrasting textures and a lip-smacking sweetness provided by the honey.
The best main dish I’ve enjoyed at Wild Sage is the lamb belly. Rolls of tender, deliciously juicy slow-roast belly cooked with mint, lemon and smoked paprika that are perfectly complemented by fresh peas, crushed new potatoes and spring onion and topped with an anchovy and cucumber dressing.
The gravy is perfectly rich and the addition of dollops of mint and onion-laced yoghurt completes a dish that could very easily become a Sunday dinner staple. It’s one of those plates of food that makes you growl with pleasure through every mouthful.
With both Mark and Becky being experienced chefs, they wisely employ a democratic decision-making process when it comes to designing the dishes but, for practical reasons, Becky is currently running front-of-house and Mark the kitchen.
To ensure she keeps her hand in, however, desserts are designated Becky’s sole domain. And they are easily the equal of the mains.
I’ve tried both orange posset and rhubarb compote with toasted cinnamon oats and lemon cheesecake with white ganache chocolate, raspberry sauce and almond caramel and I’d aggressively ward off anyone who tried to come anywhere near me until I’d scoffed every last atom of either.
Prices are, across the board, very fair for what you receive. Starters are £5 to £10, mains £10 to £16 and desserts change constantly but are equally reasonably priced.
Wild Sage is also an excellent brunch option, with the likes of frittata and eggs benedict on offer from 10.30 in the morning. Beverley shoppers would do well to sneak through to Lairgate from the main drag between the markets for their bite to eat.
Admirably, there are currently no plans to significantly increase seating capacity at Wild Sage once Covid restrictions are lifted. It will remain intimate and cosy. The only change planned is to – once trade picks up – employ a pot washer.
To return to my original point, some restaurants may vanish unexpectedly - even when they seem to be popular – but I can’t see Wild Sage disappearing anytime soon. If anything, I’d expect it’ll soon be very difficult to secure yourself a seat. My advice is to get in before too many people catch on to a good thing.
Wild Sage, 52 Lairgate, Beverley, HU17 8EU. Tel: 01482 872000. www.ildsagebeverley.co.uk. Open: Tuesday and Wednesday, 10.30am-3pm; Thursday to Saturday, 10.30am-3pm and 5.30-8pm.