If you’re a good enough restaurant then the punters will come and, writes Dave Lee, J Johnsons is one of Hull’s best.
Another month, another new restaurant in Hull’s bedevilled Fruit Market. The determination to create an enclave of exclusive eateries continues apace, whether the diners of the city want them or not. And the general consensus seems to be that – unless it’s sunny and the wind’s coming from the south – they don’t.
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The best approach for any nascent restaurant on Humber Street is to accept that weeknight trade is poor and weekends can be patchy and to adjust your opening times accordingly, make your offering as strong as possible and wait until word gets around that what you’re doing is unavoidably good. Enter J Johnsons Wine Bar & Bistro.
J Johnsons has been created by the team behind the other impeccable eatery on Humber Street, Butler Whites. Just as there, Jason Gittins, Dan Robinson and Chris Eastaugh have shown exactly how to take a heritage building, convert it in a respectful, practical way and infuse it with the spirit of the fruit merchants that once plied their trade there.
Butler Whites is named after the original fruit and veg merchant occupiers and so J Johnsons is named after fruit and nut man Jack. In fact, this new endeavour is even better than the team’s existing offering. The cocktail/wine bar downstairs is perfectly-appointed and feels timelessly classic. Upstairs, though, is superb. Probably the best dining space in Hull.
It’s not flash, it’s just been kept simple and classy. Bare brick walls, high-ceiling, plenty of elbow room and no faff means that all focus goes on the company round the table and the food. And the food is fabulous. As with Butler Whites, the focus is on good ingredients and robust flavours. Nothing is over-complicated or needlessly elaborate. In its way, it’s very Ull.
The menu changes with the seasons but I warrant that there will never be many of the six starters and six mains that you don’t fancy. I sat through two cocktails (pea & elderflower cooler – very refreshing) trying to decide what to plump for and, in the end, went with broccoletti, ricotta and almond ravioli. Clearly designed as a nod to the fruit and nut that was previously traded within the walls, the two large ravioli came covered in a sage butter sauce with shavings of Comté and pea shoots. The perfectly al dente pasta showed off its freshness and the two cheeses were so subtle that the other flavours weren’t overwhelmed.
Better still, across the table was pea, asparagus and burrata bruschetta. An exciting, colourful explosion of a dish which I could happily eat every day forevermore. Every ingredient utterly fresh and perfectly cooked and a burrata so creamy and soft it could have been sliced open with a taut strand of hair. I’m assuming this will be served only in pea and asparagus season, so get in quick.
With my mother being something of an aficionado, I know how hard it is to find decent rabbit these days. My siblings and I are annually dispatched all over East Yorkshire in search of one to supplement the Christmas table and rarely come back with good news. The chef at Johnsons, though, must know a savvy supplier because the ballotine of rabbit main course featured a huge crispy baked leg with plenty of flesh on the bone. It comes with two loins, which have been filled with soft French cheese, peas, herbs and lemon and wrapped in pancetta.
Just as good was bourbon glazed ox cheek, an absurdly large serving of slow braised fall-apart cheek blathered in a dangerously dark and rich bourbon sauce and served with celeriac puree, Swiss chard leaf and crispy shallots. Can you imagine the noises I made while eating that lot? Other diners were staring at me. I ordered chips as well, to mop up the sauce, chunky chips cooked in beef dripping and piled high on the fork.
Puds aren’t a big deal at Johnsons. The assumption is that you’ll have had more than enough from your first two courses. If you ask, though, they will offer a couple of options. We had an apple and cinnamon crumble with crème anglais which featured lovely toasted flaked almonds and a chocolate and hazelnut brownie with ice cream. It was so large and gooey that I think it could have trapped a rabbit by the paw, had it stood on it. That may, indeed, be the way they’re catching the main course ingredients.
Food, cocktails and sides for two at a J Johnsons will set you back about £120, which makes it far from the dearest place on Humber Street but the food is definitely the best in my view. There are still tweaks to be made – the music is a bit odd and the lights too dim – but these will undoubtedly be sorted in due course. The most important thing is that the deserted Gentrified Republic of Flemingate South now has its finest restaurant. Long may J Johnsons rule the roost.
J Johnsons, Humber Street, Hull, HU1 1TH. Tel: 01482 326167, www.jjohnsons.com. Open Wednesday to Saturday, 5pm till late; Sunday, 12 to 4pm.
Drink selection 4/5