Has Todmorden reached peak eaterie? It seems only five minutes since I was in Site, a cool new pizza place, and 10 minutes before that Todmoorish, the cute Tunisian caff.
And remember the Bear? I raved about it last year; it’s the old Co-operative shop, all black & white harlequin tiled floors, floor-to-ceiling shelves groaning with irresistible store cupboard staples and up the wide, elegant oak staircase a terrific caff with one of the most interesting vegetarian lunch menus I’ve seen in a long while. Blackbird is the Bear’s younger, wilder sister who stays up later.
Kevin McDougall knew as much about creating and running a food business as you or me, i.e. not that much, but he had the help of Rhian Warhurst who turned the Bear’s fortunes round. McDougall’s background is in web design and he gleefully admits that the idea for Blackbird was born on the back of a fag packet. “The idea was to create a food offer from four in the afternoon, as the Bear is starting to wind down, and carry on into the night,” says McDougall, who’s been doing a fair amount of carrying on into the night himself. Of late he’s had floors to varnish and walls to paint.
Water Street is a narrow cobbled lane and about as atmospheric as Tod gets. Blackbird occupies the space where a grimy caff languished and the makeover is impressive. There’s a whiff of post-industrial chic with grey painted brickwork and some untreated stone walls; lighting is low and rather sexy as befits the naughty sister’s room. It feels like a rather sophisticated cocktail bar and indeed the tunes are post-club chill-out, itself a first in Tod, I would hazard a guess. They make much of the cocktails; I wasn’t aware of this and drove down. Next time, it’s going to be a Damson in Distress to kick off and maybe a Blackbird Bloody Mary to finish.
Anyway, the food. The idea is small plates. I came across this concept for the first time in a sensational Bristol restaurant called Flinty Red a couple of years ago and I’ve been watching it catch on. Choose from a range of meat, fish, vegetarian and mezze dishes – it’s not a massive choice and neither should it be – and they come to the table fairly randomly, as they’re ready, tapas-style. Size-wise, they’re something between starters and mains, so more like Venetian cicchetti – though here on Water Street they’re Yorkshire portions and actually a bit too big – not a complaint I generally find myself making.
Chef Scott Barclay was up until a few years ago a manager at B&Q. Cooking’s gain is DIY’s loss. After earning a stripe or two at the Glenelg Inn and Edinburgh’s Ondine he headed south to join his fellow Scot McDougall and his sure-footed approach is refreshing. The menu features the likes of beef bourguignon (£6.50) and game stew and Tuscan meatballs (£6), two exemplary dishes, the first with immense depth of flavour (I later establish cooking time of around five hours and the addition of Heritage carrots and blackcurrant jelly) and the meatballs with an extraordinary texture, made with rare breeds pork, ricotta and parmesan.
The four fish choices include mackerel and caper pâté with celeriac remoulade and pickled cucumber and a classic Fritto Misto but we can’t resist scallops on Yorkshire chorizo (£7.50). Four of the most perfectly cooked beauties arrive with mango and chilli salsa and just the right amount of kick. Chris Wildman, the Yorkshire chorizo king, seems to have hit his stride – chef Barclay reckons his is the best in the country. Sweet potato falafel with tzatziki (£5) is another volume-defying dish – sure, they look substantial but pop one in your mouth and they simply dissolve, leaving you with a cumin, coriander and smoked paprika hit.
Vegetarians will be thrilled with this place. It’s hard to make a choice because they all stand out (Melanzane Parmigiana, Gyoza, tempura, Insalata Caprese) but we’re recommended the beetroot carpaccio and it’s a belter. Paper thin slices, crumbled goat’s cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds and a stunning ginger reduction is a fiver and a perfectly poised dish.
Much thought has gone into the wine list. This is, after all, a bar as well as a restaurant. McDougall sought counsel from wine merchant Gerrard Seel in Warrington and a shortish list sees an interesting range from Chilean Merlots to a fifty quid Montrachet with a good number of them by the glass. Craft beers and ciders complete the scene.
McDougall says he wants all kinds of people to come for all kinds of reasons; a lot of them seem to be here on a chilly March night. A craft beer guy sitting at the bar reading his Kindle. A party’s kicking off in the cosy, private back room. A suited and booted gent is enjoying a beer, the paper and a plate of food. Then there’s us, ordering and eating as much as we think we can get away with. During the day folk swing by for coffee and cake; I can see myself calling in at 5-ish for a glass of Pedro Ximenez Montilla and plate of antipasti to ease myself into dreams of Andalusia.
I’ve only one suggestion. Either the tables have to get bigger or the plates smaller. No prizes for guessing which one I’m recommending.
• Blackbird, 23 Water Street, Todmorden, OL14 5AB. 01706 813038, www.blackbirdbar.co.uk; open seven days a week, from noon-11pm; food served 4pm-9pm.