When is a restaurant not a restaurant? Does actual cooking have to take place? While you’re discussing this over your morning cuppa and cornflakes, let me tell you about Friends of Ham.
You may well have been to the one in Leeds on dingy New Station Street. It started off as a tiny but stylish bar but it’s recently tripled in size. In 2014 owners Claire and Anthony Kitching won the coveted Observer Food Monthly Award for Best Place to Drink and they’re on a roll, with FOH Ilkley opening in August.
So, is it a bar or a bistro? A drinking den or restaurant? It’s all those things. With food and booze as good as this, it hardly matters what we call it. Actual cooking doesn’t happen, unless you count the grilling of a slice of sourdough and some rather good, cakey puddings, but everything put in front of us is delicious. The idea is a simple one: platters of cold meats and cheese, served with good bread and salads, matched with a staggering selection of beers, an interesting wine list and some sherries and ciders.
FOH is in the former Ilkley Gazette office on Wells Road and I can’t think of a more appropriate use of an old newspaper building. It’s a chilly, clear autumn evening and the handsome, double-fronted exterior gives a glimpse of what lies within: it’s all glowing light and chatter.
Despite only being just over a month old, it feels like it’s been this way forever – a little bit shabby, a little bit Scandi, very comfortable and lived-in; the floorboards are nicely battered, the wooden tables scrubbed. There are books and games in case you run out of conversation, and one of the most appealing selections of store cupboard goodies I’ve seen in a while.
Bradford-born Anthony sources in the UK though most of the food on offer is Spanish and Italian charcuterie, with cheeses from France, Spain and Britain. But you’ll also find choices from award-winning affineur Andy Swinscoe’s fabulous Courtyard Dairy in Skipton and some cuts from Artisanal Blackhand Charcuterie based in Hackney – in fact their fennel salami, smoked pancetta and head salami is as good a board of meat as you’ll find. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We start with smoked Marcona almonds and a bowl of huge, intensely flavoured Gordal olives – both doing their appetite-piquing job, but the homemade tapenade is king. Smooth, rich and with just a kick of chilli, it’s the business with slices of griddled, oil-drizzled sourdough and a glass of Irrepetible Malbec (“brooding and complex”); already our eyes are rolling back in their sockets.
My Spanish board is crowded with see-through slices of Jabugo Iberico (from free-range pigs fed on acorns and olives), discs of creamy, nutty Bellota chorizo, a stunning unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheese, Zamorano Gran Reserva which manages to be sweet and sharp at the same time, and Garroxta, a Catalan goat’s cheese.
It’s only when you taste products as good as these that I realise that the humble (and cheap) versions I buy in Aldi are simply inferior. The only accompaniment is sourdough from Leeds Bread Co-operative, a green salad dressed with red onion and parmesan and a plate of tomatoes that taste like they’ve just come from your granddad’s greenhouse.
My co-diner’s French cheese board features Cantal, a firm cow’s cheese from the Auvergne, paired with Selles au Couffy, a moist, slightly salty goat’s cheese. And I’m totally taken with the tale of Persille du Cezalier told to us by chef Sean Hood, a young man whose knowledge is impressive. It’s a sheep’s cheese produced by a collective of 36 farmers who graze their animals on the limestone plateau in the Massif Central. They originally sold the milk to the huge Roquefort brand, but after some consideration decided to stay small in order to produce a unique cheese. Great story, eh?
By now the place is full and we’ve got to leave our table in the pleasant, airy basement (can’t wait to come back in winter when that monumental fire’s blazing) and move upstairs, where the joint is jumping. It’s worth saying that the aforementioned chef is beavering away in a tiny space in the corner, in full view, the lethal looking slicing machine just a blur.
People at the bar are tucking into small plates of Serrano and Finocchiona coupled with Hafod, a tangy Welsh Cheddar, there’s a family demolishing what appears to be the entire menu, and a gathering of beer drinkers working their way through an extraordinary list of bottles that starts in Brooklyn and finishes in Buxton, via Denmark. Cask ales include Summer from the Ilkley Brewery, Salty Kiss from Magic Rock, Huddersfield, and Love Over Gold from the BAD Co in Dishforth. But the Malbec has done its job so we settle for a couple of coffees and a rather fabulous salted caramel brownie with Chantilly cream.
Service is efficient and largely competent – when we ask about the background of some of the cheeses, the staff have to go and find out – but this isn’t a criticism, rather that than bluster, and to be fair there’s a lot to remember The atmosphere is lovely; happy, inclusive, relaxed – not an easy trick to pull off in such a short time.
So let’s not quibble over what makes a restaurant a restaurant. Let’s just rejoice in meticulously sourced and nicely presented food, served well in stylish, comfortable surroundings. “Simple food, big flavours” is Friends of Ham’s philosophy and, boy it works.
• Friends of Ham, 8 Wells Road, Ilkley, LS29 9JD. 01943 604344, www.friendsofham.com