Ah, Ilkley in warm spring sunshine. On The Grove, there’s a cherry blossom explosion, Prosecco corks are popping outside wine bars and the townsfolk have traded Dubarry boots for Birkenstocks. Bettys is doing a brisk trade in hot cross buns, all’s right with the world. In the building that was once home to Carluccios, is Host. It’s hard to reckon why the upmarket chain wouldn’t work in Ilkley, but hey, it didn’t, and instead we’ve got Joel Monkman’s new venture, which is much more up my tree-lined street.
Host’s interior is quietly stylish; a little bit Scandi with a hint of Abigail Ahern, and good modern art on darkly muted Farrow & Balled walls – it’s a minimal, clean space but looks as though it means business. There’s an attractive window table – try and score it if you can – as people-watching is good sport at this end of town. There’s a dimly-lit, discreet room at the back if you’re newly partnered or with someone you shouldn’t be with. I love the big tables for two – can this be standard please? I’ve had it with trying to juggle crockery on a surface the size of a dartboard, especially in this era of lots of small plates.
The shortish lunch menu doesn’t need anyone to come over and explain it. The temptation to order everything on it is considerable. If it hadn’t been touching 25 degrees outside we might have given it a go; as it is we make a sterling attempt. Anywhere that starts with bread and dripping gets my full attention. Well, it’s warm sour-dough with snow white whipped pork fat with a scatter of scratchings on the top. It’s the silkiest, saltiest thing, and magnificent. Hogget Scrumpet turns up; four lamby breaded dice sitting on something vividly minty, necked in seconds. Next, two big gob-sized smoked cheese and onion gougeres – the choux as light as bleedin’ angel’s wings as my Aunty Rita used to say of good pastry.
Then comes a plate of sweet braised leeks with roast onions filled with cheese custard, scattered with wild garlic, and beetroot-cured sea trout scattered with apple and horseradish and blobs of crème fraiche, both faultless, packing a punch and beautifully balanced. Much has been made by other reviewers of the buttermilk fried chicken ‘like grown-up McDonald’s’ according to one, but we eschew it for BBQ beets with salted yoghurt, blackberry, carraway and pine nuts, simple but effective, imaginative, bursting with colour and brimming with flavor.
To follow, more good things, this time served on sourdough flatbreads, the best of which is roasted cauliflower with confit garlic in a rich, buttery Kashmiri sauce; it’s deep and indulgent, though the monkfish fritter comes a close second, the batter shattering on impact with teeth. The flatbreads are perfectly good but surplus to requirements – these dishes can stand alone without distractions. Tiny quibble though. I watch a plate of slow roasted lamb shoulder make its way to another table and wish I’d not eaten all the bread at the start. When will I ever learn?
Chef/owner Joel Monkman has form. He’s a third generation chef and a chip off the old block, as anyone who’s been eating in Yorkshire down the last 30 years will testify. As well as learning at the knee of father Chris, he earned some strong stripes as demi chef at Harvey Nichols’ Fourth Floor Café and Bar in Leeds under the tutelage of the mighty Richard Walton Allen. Monkman was crowned Young Yorkshire Chef of the Year in 2010. After Harvey Nicks he went on to front Ham & Friends in Leeds city centre which sadly folded last year.
There are three desserts and the apple and almond cake with malt puree, goats yoghurt sorbet showered in a cloud of white chocolate is more than ok but then Pudding of the Year turns up, knocking it into a cocked hat. All it says is ‘Parkin. Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb. Whipped Thyme Custard. Hazelnut.’ Oh my. The parkin is soft and sticky with a hint of spice. The herb-laced custard light as air. The rhubarb is a sharp sorbet. The nuts are caramel-sweet and brittle, adding crunch. It’s perfect. Puddings are paired with dessert wines and cocktails but we’re driving, though the temptation to have an espresso martini with the dark chocolate, caramel and walnut Mille Feuille is almost overwhelming.
Much on the menu is meat-free and it’s done cleverly, by stealth. My memory might be playing tricks but it’s a nod to Walton Allen’s aesthetic and very welcome. Monkman’s skill in pairing and balancing flavours is impressive; he’s got a deftness and lightness of touch but wears it modestly. It’s easy to put a lot of things on a plate, not so easy to put a few – the dishes here look and sound simple, but there’s a lot going on; good, sound principles and tons of experience from a chap who still looks like a teenager. Prices are silly cheap – lots of plates between two (no booze) was £51 – an absolute steal for this level of cooking.
Host, 60 The Grove, Ilkley, LS29 9PA, 01943 605337, www.hostilkley.co.uk
Closed Monday/Tuesday. Wednesday 5.30pm-9pm, Thursday/Friday/Saturday noon-2pm, 5.30pm-9pm. Sunday noon-3.30pm.