Amanda Wragg enjoys the heart-warming buzz at the Hinchliffe Arms.
I was cautiously optimistic when a local couple, Miles and Linda Laprell, took the reins of this handsome old pub in April 2012. Cautious because they didn’t have much experience in the industry (apart from a summer job behind this very bar, when Miles was a teenager and “years of market research”) and it seemed too good to be true that years of having to avoid it for one reason or another were over.
Turns out I was fretting needlessly. The Laprells hit the ground running and before you could say “mine’s a pint” customers old and new flooded in and “the Hinch” got its mojo back.
The location is sublime. Calder Valley nay-sayers (too many pylons, too far from civilization) will have to U-turn when they drop down from Cragg Vale to a sheltered, leafy dell in the middle of which the Hinch hunkers. South-facing, it’s bathed in sunlight when there is any and tables set out at the front are a magnet for al fresco drinkers and diners. Built around 1850, it’s named after a fabulously rich mill owning family from Cragg Hall; a sepia photograph in the pub attests to the Hinchliffe’s prosperity – taken in front of the hall it features serried ranks of servants with the family looking on, smugly.
When they opened for business the Laprells were keen to establish that this was going to be a pub with food, not a dining pub – and they’ve kept their plan in place, although they’ve upped the ante in terms of what’s on offer. I walk into a lot of places that call themselves pubs but my heart sinks when I clock the acres of dining tables and a postage stamp size square set aside for drinkers. A happy medium has been hit here; any night of the week you’ll find a loyal band of locals sitting at the bar enjoying well-kept real ale (a lot of care goes into sourcing the beer) and all sorts of folk eating either in the comfortable bar or the slightly more formal room at the side.
The crowd-pleasing menu doesn’t reach further than its grasp, with starters along the lines of chicken liver parfait with beetroot jelly and chicken skin crisp, and asparagus with Welsh rarebit and hazelnut – a new one on me and completely successful; nicely grilled spears with a sprinkling of buttery, cheesy, crunchy rarebit, like a savoury crumble topping with half a handful of sweet roasted nuts – such a pretty plate.
There’s a board with a few specials and I can’t resist the idea of duck mille feuille. In clumsy hands this could be a disaster, but someone in the kitchen has created a future classic and it’s nuanced and delicate, the tender meat layered between two perfectly crisp, fine, salty pastry shards, toasted pine nuts and watercress over the top and laced with a little balsamic syrup. This is a dish that’s been practiced and perfected. Well done chef.
The choice of mains (six, very fashionable) at first glance seems fairly standard (rack of lamb, pan fried cod, chicken wrapped in ham) but the lamb has a pistachio crust and the chicken sits on a butterbean and fennel stew.
The fat chunk of cod arrives, pearly white with a crisp golden skin and perched on a mound of crushed Jersey Royals, horseradish veloute providing a nice kick and a slick of cauliflower puree adding woody sweetness.
Two of the six mains are meat and fish free and would be on my like list any night of the week; Hawes Wensleydale and roast garlic croquettes with asparagus and pea shoot salad or spinach and ricotta cannelloni say to me that the kitchen cares about non carnivores and isn’t treating them as second class citizens. Bread is home made, stone ground, dense and delicious.
I’m starting to think this is a dining pub after all, then clock fish and chips and bangers and mash arriving on the next table. Hooray! Ooh is that a pie bringing up the rear? It is, and a very good looking one too, with a proper short crust, gravy the colour of molten chocolate and fat chips. More duck for us, this time it’s pink, tender breast and languishing on a precise square of Dauphinoise potatoes with a side of al dente green beans and a stunning amber jus, the depth of flavour assisted by a hefty but well judged pinch of salt.
And Yorkshire portions! There’s no parsimony in any of these dishes, you’re not going to have to nip into the chippy on the way home.
So who’s the talent in the kitchen? Turns out it’s a young crew, lads called Sam, Justin and Simon, at least one of them local. Whoever you are boys and wherever you’ve learned your trade, just keep doing what you’re doing.
Puddings are worth mentioning; dark chocolate tart with griottines cherries and wild cherry ice cream, Eton mess with fresh berries and our perfect custard pannacotta with poached Cragg Vale rhubarb, silkily sweet with the right amount of wibble and all pastel colours like a fading Polaroid.
Service is endlessly cheerful, and I like the way regulars are greeted by name. You can hand pull local beer and serve any amount of good food you like but if the vibe’s not right, what’s the point?
The Laprells have nailed it; there’s a heart-warming buzz here.
The Hinchliffe Arms, Cragg Vale, Halifax HX7 5TA. 01422 883256, www.hinchliffearmscraggvale.co.uk
Open Tuesday 5-11pm (food til 8.30pm); Wednesday and Thursday 12-3pm (food til 2pm ) and 5-11pm (food til 8.30pm); Friday 12-9pm; Saturday 12-11pm (food on both nights til 9pm); Sunday 12-9 (food til 7pm). If you don’t want a full dinner, Tea Time Treats (5-6pm, Tuesday to Friday) include haddock goujons and light pasta dishes for a fiver. Meal for two (two mains and a shared pud) with a bottle of house Pinot Grigio at £15.50 was £68.00.