The Piece Hall is back in business and chef Justin Thomas has also found his stride within the landmark building.
Halifax is having a moment. After almost four years of renovation the historic Grade I* listed Piece Hall has thrown open its magnificent carved wooden doors. For decades it’s been underused and crumbling; photos from the 1980s show it on its knees.
Built by subscription for £9,692 it originally opened on January 1st 1779 with ‘much fanfare and public ceremony’. In the evening, there was a ‘thrilling firework display by the celebrated Signor Pietro, consisting of an Egyptian pyramid … to be set on fire by a pigeon’. Two hundred and 38 years and £19m later, The Piece Hall re-opened on August 1, Yorkshire Day. There was much pomp and ceremony, but as far as I know, no pigeons were torched.
On a sharp, sunny day, you could be in an Italian piazza; the honeyed stone balustrades glow and folk are sitting out drinking prosecco and gin cocktails. On a Wednesday in Calderdale. I know! Toddlers trail barefoot through the water features and office workers perch on slatted seats with packed lunches. It’s West Yorkshire’s St Mark’s Square. Tucked into a corner (but enjoying full sun) is Elder, a café/bar/bistro; outside, a pleasant terrace surrounded by boxed lavender and inside, a long, narrow, light-filled space with an upholstered banquette down one wall, a bar at one end with tall chairs for perching and an open kitchen at the other. Smartly got-up, smiling staff busy about.
Chef/owner Justin Thomas’s offer is small sharing plates. If this sounds twee, think again; the menu is stripped-back, intelligently thought-through and instantly appealing. ‘Nibbles’ include homemade pickles, sourdough toast with pork butter and buttermilk, Cheddar & thyme dip with tenderstem broccoli – you’ll agree they jump off the page, but our attention was caught by char-grilled corn on the cob (£3.25) and pease pudding (£5). The corn is briefly shown the grill and matched with a piquant miso and chilli mayo – I can’t tell you how pretty a plate it is (‘it’s a work of art!’ opines chum Amy) and how deep the flavour of the dip. My bowl of pease pudding is laced with ham hock and is perfectly salted, a tangle of pickled red onion on top cutting through the richness. When was the last time you saw this on a menu?
Next up, ‘warm plates’ promising roast cauliflower with lemon & tarragon dressing – but they’ve just shifted the last one, so the roast pork belly and brisket are quickly snaffled. The beautifully cooked belly (a steal at £7.50) arrives on soused cabbage with a herb & caper sauce; it’s well judged, with a pleasing sharpness from the capers; another good looking plate of food. Braised brisket comes with buttered greens and a scatter of hazelnuts; the beef is sweetly tender and pink – and I’m instantly time-travelled back to our kitchen when I was a kid, watching mum wrap brisket in string and put it in the pressure cooker (a bit of kit that terrified me, still does.) A dish I’m having next time is the Fava bean puree with poached egg and grated turnip – I ate this in Puglia a couple of years ago and it was astonishing.
We choose ‘sides’; carrot salad (finely grated, with translucent radish discs, a sharp vinaigrette and flax seeds – really fresh and crunchy) courgette, whisper thin and scattered with mint, pine nuts and chilli, and roast baby spuds with ham hock and Cheddar – a welcome blast of comfort on a chill day. But nothing can prepare us for a dish we spot on the chalkboard just in the nick of time. ‘Lamb fat mashed potatoes, greens and lamb gravy’. It is simply stupendous, and makes us not just happy, but firecrackers happy. When I ask Thomas why this, he says simply that the lamb cooking juices were too good to bin. It was demolished in minutes.
Justin Thomas is pretty much self-taught, though he put some time in at Kendell’s in Leeds, was head chef at a garden centre bistro in Sheffield then ended up as Head of Food Development at Friends of Ham. He ran some pop-ups as The Bootleg Belly; this is his first restaurant venture, and it’s a joy to watch him calmly working his magic in a kitchen the size of four phone boxes. What’s his thinking? ‘A bit Nordic, always starting with the ingredients, a bit of foraging, keeping an eye on the British larder’ he says humbly. I venture to suggest there’s a bit more to it than that – he displays consummate skills and understands flavours – but he demurs.
Scones, tarts and savoury muffins (the black pudding and cheese, a recipe nicked – sorry, ‘inspired by’ a trip to New Zealand) are made in-house; the treacle tart (my Kryptonite) is unimprovable, and with Northern Bloc Madagascan Bourbon Vanilla ice cream and a shard of peanut brittle, is a show-stopper. The wine list is a short but intelligent, there’s a range of craft beers and iced tea from a Fairtrade organisation, ChariTea.
Thomas is doing something quite extraordinary here. He’s producing interesting and unusual dishes in a small space – this sort of cooking looks deceptively easy. The appeal lies in its simple honesty; here’s friendly food that does not overstrive. Prices are ungrasping – you will enjoy a very fine meal for less than £50. The vibe is smart, modern and thoughtful; Elder is a cracking little gem, helping to making new history in The Piece Hall.
Elder, Unit 17 The Piece Hall, Halifax HX1 1RE. Opening times vary see the website at thisiselder.com, 07393 514098.
Drink selection 5/5