I’ve eaten dinner in some odd places; on a raft bobbing about at sea, on a flatbed truck towed by a tractor and most recently, in a lighthouse (the Grade II*-listed Hoad Monument in Ulverston, a fabulous “pop-up”). But in a sports club? Nope, it’s a first for me.
I heard a little rumble about an Estonian chap cooking up a storm in a corner of Heaton Squash and Tennis Club – who could resist? Heaton is Bradford’s leafy suburb and as I pull up on a warm, sunny evening, people are playing tennis on the outside courts. Inside the fairly non-descript building, the unmistakable whiff of sports bags and the thwack of squash balls being smashed against walls. The receptionist barely looks up as I ask where the dining room is, just points vaguely in the direction of a set of stairs. It’s not auspicious, is it? I’m beginning to regret inviting along my chums; they’ll think I’ve finally gone off my rocker.
You’ll have to wind your way through narrow corridors, past changing rooms and grunting, red-faced squash players throwing themselves round the courts until finally the oasis that is the club’s dining room and bar opens out. At the far end is the Hidden Kitchen, half a dozen or so tables draped in white linen. Incongruous it certainly is – but friendly too. Front of house James Fisher greets us warmly; apart from an elderly couple, we’re the only ones in.
Decades ago, just up the road from here was Clark’s, a restaurant serving the kind of food you couldn’t get anywhere else in West Yorkshire, apart from the extraordinary Weaver’s Shed in Golcar. It was the genesis of fine dining; chefs making interesting, experimental dishes from unusual ingredients, a world away from the ghastly Beefeaters and Berni Inns we’d grown up with. Turns out that aforementioned Estonian Tarmo Frey (who earned a Chef of the Year Award back home) was head chef at Clark’s, and his (now) brother in law Fisher ran the floor. Clark’s closed, Frey and Fisher lead other lives away from the kitchen but recently came back to the business running a tiny eaterie in Bradford’s Oastler Market before setting up at the club mid-April.
We roam across the gratifyingly short menu – just five starters, eight mains and three desserts. Calamari comes in a light, properly seasoned tempura with a spiky, homemade tartar sauce; my soft asparagus spears sit on a slice of bruschetta with an exemplary hollandaise sauce topped with a soft poached egg. Nick’s cod fillet fishcake is the right ratio of smoked haddock to potato, yielding softly to the fork – and again, seasoning is bob on. It’s a thing of great beauty – and we all know how hard it is to get it right. The parsley sauce it sits in is another clever made-from-scratch accompaniment.
I’m drawn to the beef ragu (with pasta made in-house too) but it’s a dish for a cold night, and it’s far from that, so fish it is. Sadly the seabass hasn’t materialised so a piece of pearly haddock has to do, and it certainly does. With it is a mound of nicely cooked savoy, a scattering of spuds, a deeply flavoured tomato concasse and another good sauce – this time, a sweet beurre blanc.
Chicken schnitzel is lightly crumbed, tender and moist and the potatoes have a sprinkling of dill; a simple, rewarding plate of food. But dish of the night goes again to Nick – Gressingham duck breast, cooked absolutely perfectly (pink, tender) and presented on crushed potatoes with some crunchy green beans and a glossy red wine reduction. Another classic dish well executed, a sweet passion fruit sauce pulling the whole thing together.
By now we’re congratulating ourselves on our find but wondering if anyone else is going to fetch up. It’s slightly lonely in our (by now, tropical) corner of the room on account of late sun blasting in – but a couple more tables are populated and it feels more like a night out.
A brief chat with Fisher reveals that they’re open from 11am serving “breakfast eggs”, then move on to “light bites” (bruschetta, and the fishcakes – a steal at a fiver) and a tennis club sandwich (of course) plus the likes of ham and cheese panini with homemade slaw, and roast gammon, egg & chips. There are just three of them delivering all this, six days a week – and they cater club events too, buffets for up to a 100 hungry players.
We share a Heaton mess (see what they did there?) and it’s a lovely tumble of the finest shards of meringue and summer berries topped with white chocolate ice cream. The cheesecake is pretty fine too; light, frothy, disappeared in seconds. There’s a wealth of experience in the cooking – Frey really knows what he’s doing, and the result is honest, unpretentious, flavoursome food that borders on rustic rather than fine dining. Everything from the bread to the ice cream is made from scratch and it shows.
For a couple of guys who reckoned they were “done with catering”, they’ve thrown themselves full-pelt into this unusual project. You’ve got to admire their vision; not everyone would have the chops to make a go of it in a location like this. Just avert your eyes as you climb the stairs and try to push all thoughts of damp Fred Perrys to the back of your mind and let the food do the talking.
The Hidden Kitchen, Heaton Tennis and Squash Club, Garth Barn Close, Highgate, Bradford BD9 5PH. 07946 327265. Open Tuesday to Friday, 11am-2.30pm and 5-9pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11-4pm. Starters around £5, mains from £10 to £14, desserts £5.
Drinks selection 4/5