Followers of this magazine’s Pub of the Week column with sharp memories will recall that back in 2012 we sang the praises of a new opening in Leeds’s New Station Street. It was called Friends of Ham and whether it was a pub, restaurant or whatever, we instantly fell for it.
It consisted of a cramped bar with a selection of Spanish hams, ready for carving, and a basement where you could order an excellent platter of serrano and manchego and wash it down with some interesting beer or wine.
Simple, but they did it so well – and as a colleague on this page recently pointed out, not everywhere does the platter thing well – that popularity and national awards swiftly followed; they supplied other restaurants with their meat; they expanded into next door; they opened in Ilkley and now they have created a rather gorgeous upstairs space in the Grand Arcade.
Gastrodome was briefly in vogue a few years back as a word to describe a place where you could have a drink or a meal and then shop for wine, deli and exotic kitchen implements. Add in a wine school and Ham and Friends has all that, in an agreeably laid-back setting.
Up a flight of stairs and open sesame to a dog-legged room with bar, tiled kitchen and marble-topped dining tables. The palette of whites and greys is warmed by the odd olive tree. Up a further mezzanine is an eye-catching wine shop under the skylights. Fresh food and fancy ingredients are ranged around the walls. It’s only 100 yards but light years from the seediness of New Briggate.
It’s a proper kitchen, too, with head chef Joel Monkman at the stove, a surname to ring bells for anyone who has eaten in West Yorkshire down the years.
At Ham, Monkman is channelling the small plates, sharing plates trend – four plates for £20 and an à la carte that starts at £3 for olives and leaps to £12 for the charcuterie board. If that sounds much like Friends of Ham, browse instead through octopus, ’nduja, and chickpea broth; slow roast lamb with alliums and capers; cheese dumplings with caramelised cauliflower; shaved fennel; and potato soup with Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese.
Our lunchtime saw two of us with a bird’s eye view of Vicar Lane working our way through most of the prix fixé of eight dishes: fresh flakes of Whitby crab lifted with a tang of ponzu, circled by sweet peas and mixed leaves. A dish of courgettes has been lightly scorched and combined with red and yellow tomatoes, a few dashes of yogurty goat’s curd, a splash of olive oil and a heap of marjoram. It’s textbook for a sunny afternoon.
Charred tenderstem broccoli comes topped with see-through slices of lardo and the crunch of smoked and roasted almonds. We stray to the à la carte for the pigs’ cheek blanquette with butter beans and Jerusalem artichoke, worth the detour for a dish of softly collapsing pig, soothing butter beans and artichokes all wrapped in a rich, winey, velvety sauce.
A fillet of mackerel with blackened and charred skin is beautifully crisp and salted. So good.
At dessert there’s a deceptively simple plate of fresh, though not entirely ripe – peach but it’s still a beautiful combination with whipped mascarpone, orange blossom water and a rubble of broken honeycomb. We also scoff the last piece of a luxurious baked chocolate slice with cherries due to come off the menu.
The wine list is a big deal here. A wholly original list of natural, biodynamic and organic bottles, most of which I’ve never come across before, accompanied by some tantalising notes.
We each order a glass of Steffano Bellotti’s Ivag. I’m not so keen on its hints of fizz and cider. Marta, our delightful waiter and expert sommelier, volunteers a taste of a couple of alternatives and freely replaces the Ivag with a Canadian Pinot Gris. It’s a stylish move. ‘It’s what we do,’ she says.
And what they do here is all very good indeed. Food, setting, wine, service and soul. In fact, Ham and Friends is quite the best opening in Leeds this year in my book.
Ham & Friends, Grand Arcade, Leeds LS1 6PG. 0113 468 3890, hamandfriends.com.
Open: Tuesday to Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday & Saturday: 11-12am; Sunday, 11am-7pm. Price: Dinner for two inc. bottle wine and service £90.