Shibden Mill Inn has a new chef, but can he step up to the plate? Amanda Wragg is very impressed.
Rattling down the dizzying, ever-narrowing cobbled lane as it drops to the valley bottom, it’s easy to imagine the satnav is lying, and taking you nowhere near your dinner. But hold on tight, take a hard left and the stunner that is the Shibden Mill heaves into view. Down the years it’s won a slew of gongs; I don’t know if it’s won any beauty pageants, but if there is such a thing for pubs, it should. Gloriously wisteria-ed and smartly whitewashed, it hunkers by Red Beck; in the summer there’s no finer place for a pint of Shibden Special Bitter and a sarnie in the handsome flagged garden. All you can hear is the burbling brook, birdsong and sighs of relief from folk climbing out of their cars, having found it.
Three hundred and fifty years ago it was a corn, then textile mill, where the enterprising Holdsworth brothers manufactured serge, selling “pieces” of woven cloth in one of the 315 rooms at the Piece Hall; it became an inn in 1890 when Halifax brewers Webster’s bought it. If you’re hoping for beams, wonky walls and an air of antiquity, you’re in luck; the place is bristling with history. Add burnished oak dressers, candles in brass sticks and huge open fires and you’ve got a rather special and very comfortable place to eat, once your eyes have adjusted to the low light (small windows + dark low beams, a recipe for bumping into things. Or maybe that’s just me).
In these surroundings you might expect pretty traditional food – and there are pub classics (fish & chips, homemade pie, burgers) but much of the offer is bang up to date. Outgoing chef Darren Atkinson, who steered the ship for almost a decade, established a crowd-pulling, quirky style, very much his own. Interesting to see, then, if incoming head chef Adam Harvey (who brings with him two-rosette restaurant experience) is a new brush sweeping clean.
We kick off with a mighty prawn cocktail, freighted with fat langoustines, crisp Little Gem lettuce and a secret slick of avocado in the bottom of the glass. A tiny jug of sweet Marie Rose sauce comes with; a good idea – douse your dish in as much or as little as you want. The mackerel starter is a show-stopper – a nicely seared fillet with blobs of fresh cucumber puree, a spiky sauce vierge and a quenelle of horseradish sorbet – a stroke of genius.
Next up, a perfectly cooked piece of sea bass, crunchy green beans and mash. Not just any old mash, mind, mash infused with smoked black garlic and thyme; it’s simultaneously creamy and punchy. A puddle of dill and shallot dressing completes this simple but effective dish.
Curried monkfish tail is subtly spiced, with just the right level of warmth and aromatic cardamom coming through, and with a sweet lobster sauce, potato croquettes and pea puree, it’s a cracking plate of food. Elsewhere you’ll find the likes of pan-fried sea trout, saffron, fennel and grapefruit, scallop ravioli and duo of duck, sweet potato, red cabbage with juniper jus.
You’ll do well if you’re a keen carnivore; Yorkshire steaks are slapped on the Kopa (a posh charcoal grill) and served with dripping fat chips. But vegetarians will score too, with the likes of spicy tomato and red pepper arancini, and Mediterranean vegetable tian with mozzarella and red pepper coulis. The Shibden has always been the sort of crowd-pleaser that offers the likes of “Fish & Fizz Friday”, “Mad Hatter’s Tea Parties” and, new to me, “Guinea Pig Nights”, which doesn’t involve skewering your pet, but is a test of chef’s new dishes. I’ve never had one, but the Sunday roasts are legendary.
Something called ‘“Study of Chocolate” turns up and it’s rich, dark and sculptural and made up of marquise, parfait and ganache; it wouldn’t look out of place in the Hepworth Gallery but it’s rather wonderful. There’s treacle tart with clotted cream ice cream, and warm banana loaf too, but it’s a hot night, and anyway who could resist mango and passion fruit cannelloni? Not me. The cannelloni bit is a fine sleeve made of fruit with a white chocolate mousse filling sitting on a scattering of toasted almonds, baby basil and chocolate crumb, the poshest granola you’ve ever had, plus a shard of sugar on top. Harvey knows his way round desserts, for sure.
Service is sweet; manager Glen Pearson has always chosen and trained his staff carefully. They’re mostly young kids but they know what they’re doing. However, we were looked after with great courtesy by an older, urbane Spanish chap. Where are you from? I asked. “Liverpool,” he deadpanned, smiling. I’ve seldom been so graciously finessed.
The menu bristles with seasonal diversity and good use is made of their herb and vegetable garden; local producers are championed – if you’ve never had the pleasure, tuck in to the fabulous Pextenement cheese plate.
The Shibden’s been a fixture in the valley for decades and it’s good to know that they don’t appear to be planning anything that’s going to scare the horses any day soon; the instinct here is to feed you well. Fine dining notwithstanding, anywhere that touts a fish finger sandwich and a pint of bespoke bitter in a front yard will do for me.
The Shibden Mill, Shibden Fold, Halifax HX3 7UL tel: 01422 365840. www.shibdenmill.com. Dinner for two, three courses each and two glasses of wine, £111. Open noon to 11pm, seven days a week.