Life as a food reviewer is tough. Week after week, we seek out bistros, gastropubs, cafes and bars and report back honestly to help you make an informed choice when you’re planning a meal out. The entire purpose, from my point of view anyway, is to gently guide you, given your dollar is hard earned and you really don’t want to chuck it away on some rip-off restaurant which doesn’t care if you make a return visit. What qualifies us to do this? Well nothing really, other than an abiding love of grub. As Kenneth Tynan put it: “A critic is someone who knows the way but can’t drive the car.”
I’m paid to eat out twice, sometimes three times a week, and now and again I get a bit jaded. But there are a handful of places I’d happily head for any night of the week. Prashad in Drighlington serves the best Gujarati food you’ll find anywhere in the country. The Bear Café in Todmorden offers up simple but inspired vegetarian dishes, and who wouldn’t jump at an invitation to the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill?
Somewhere I return to time and time again is a neighbourhood restaurant in downtown Sowerby Bridge in the Calder Valley. Gimbals occupies a terrace house on the main street and, other than the picture window which gives a glimpse into the treasures within, it appears modest, ordinary even. But step inside and it’s an enchanting, dreamlike place. “Idiosyncratic” doesn’t really cover it; find feathers in vintage vases, beautiful birds in glass cases, elegant candelabra, kitsch 60s oil paintings and shimmering mirror balls casting flashes of light on deep blue walls.
For a pre-prandial “artisan” cocktail (I’m particularly fond of Thyme of the Year: home-made moonshine bilberry vodka, Rosso vermouth, wild thyme) climb the mirror-tiled stairs to a lounge set-designed by Tim Burton on his day off – peacock chairs, a fringed lampshade mounted on a slender leg (toe nails painted red, of course), stunning glass cascade chandeliers, a massive snowflake illumination rescued from a warehouse in Blackpool and an extraordinary French coffin decoration: an intricate, floral beaded affair, and not remotely creepy.
Simon and Janet Baker have recently celebrated 20 years here – an accomplishment in itself given the fickle nature of the business. Maybe it’s because their raison d’etre is simply to make people happy. Baker isn’t a chef trying to make a reputation, or win awards. He’s a crowd-pleaser, he wants you to enjoy your dinner and it’s Janet’s job to make sure you have a great time. Her front-of-house style is warm, chatty and genuine, and she’s trained her young team with the same ethos; they all have an easy charm.
You might have read positive reviews of Gimbals, one of them mine (is it really seven years ago?) The reason for a re-visit on these pages is the addition of a tasting menu. Baker’s a la carte is always interesting and appetising. You’ll find the likes of poached haddock with (home-made) pappardelle, parsley pesto, pecorino and a poached egg with crispy samphire, or Iranian spiced duck breast, plum and tarragon with rose pickled shallots.
The “taster” is a distillation of all the best bits without the difficulty of having to choose. Dinner at Gimbals always starts with bread and a dish of peppery olive oil and sticky balsamic vinegar; tonight it’s a chunk of dense date bread made by apprentice Tom, who is clearly picking up the ropes. Five faultless plates of food follow.
To fire your taste buds, first up is a plate of warm, punchy Merguez sausage perched on a slick of smoked almond hummus with pomegranate molasses, delivering a pleasing hit of heat. To follow, a simple but effective oak smoked salmon salad with swiftly sautéed Jerusalem artichokes, roast spring onions and toasted brioche croutons for crunch; it’s a light, fresh palate-cleanser after the spice of the sausage and the perfect precursor to the squash dish that fetches up next. In many ways it nails Baker’s style – seasonal, colourful and slightly quirky with the emphasis on taste.
The squash is roasted with piquant harissa and arrives on a mound of cavolo nero with its distinct umami notes paired beautifully with the squash’s sweetness; raisins soaked in Pedro Ximenez and pine nuts provide the remaining range of flavours, along with flakes of salty feta cheese. Dots of wild fennel yoghurt pull the dish together beautifully. Nothing is ever put on a plate haphazardly; all the ingredients have equal billing.
Much of what he cooks with is found close to home. Cheese comes from Pextenement Farm in Todmorden and halloumi and labneh are fetched from literally down the street; Syrian refugee Razan Alsous works from a dairy unit in Sowerby Bridge (hers is an extraordinary story, told by my colleague Catherine Scott; Google it). Baker’s dad’s allotment produces salad leaves in the summer, and Janet is a seasoned forager.
Dish four of five is local lamb, pink and tender, with a sort of Dauphinoise but layered with provolone cheese and pancetta, and a lovely little mutton ball, all glazed with minted crab apple in a puddle of dark, rich lamb sauce. If we can agree that food is fundamentally about flavour, it’s all here on one plate.
And then – and then – pudding. The first spring crop of Wakefield rhubarb is gently stewed in rose water, pistachio is crumbled over, one of Janet’s meringue “kisses” popped on top of a quenelle of vanilla cream and a scattering of tiny lemon balm leaves strewn over. It’s pink, green, then pinker and greener. HEAVEN. Every time a Gimbals dessert arrives, an angel gets its wings.
I’m always bewildered that folk who’ve been cooking for so long maintain enthusiasm. The Bakers endlessly reinvent their menu, moving with the seasons rather than the times. Theirs is a very distinct signature. I know this kind of dedication requires some of the hardest work you can do; chefs like Baker make it appear effortless. There are few cheffy flourishes, rather, a discreet creativity, generosity and sure-footedness. Hours after your meal you think about how well you’ve been fed.
At £25 (including a cocktail) it’s a steal. In the 20 years I’ve been eating here I’ve never had a duff dish. I’d pop down any night of the week (Thursday is “taster” night) and I can steer you there with complete confidence. You’re welcome.
• Gimbals, 76 Wharf Street, Sowerby Bridge, Halifax HX6 2AF. 01422 839329, gimbals.co.uk. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 6 to 9.15pm. Five-course Taster Menu, £25, including cocktail (a vegetarian option is available).
DRINKS SELECTION 5/5