Leeds, perhaps once a city for hardy Yorkshire folk who would have no truck with daintier forms of dining, is now becoming somewhat of a foodie destination. The higher end of the scale now includes Jono Hawthorne’s Vice and Virtue (you might remember Jono dividing the crowd on Masterchef with his bone marrow crème brûlée), Home and Michael O’Hare’s The Man Behind the Curtain. Like any other large UK city, its mid-range dining scene isn’t immune from omnipresent chains or The Ivy’s inexorable national roll-out, leaving the independent gems few and far between. One such gem is Ox Club, which opened to critical acclaim in 2016. On a recent sojourn to Yorkshire, I finally got round to going. Just 5 years late to the party.
As its name partly suggests, the restaurant is meat-oriented but the “club” element is perhaps misleading. There is neither the plummy, oak-panelled Brexit-obsessed exclusivity of Pall Mall’s gentlemen’s clubs, nor is there any kind of membership fee or humiliating initiation ceremony. Its location on the ground floor of Headrow House may, however, evoke the sense of a nightclub: this former textile mill is now a multi-purpose ‘event’ venue. The presence of bouncers and seeing people being frisked is initially off-putting when all you want is a decent, civilised dinner. (Ditto the toilets where the hand washing message hasn’t got through to certain guests). But once inside and sheltered from the parties upstairs, it’s very much bistro mode, with friendly, attentive and accommodating staff (they honoured the request for a quieter table).
Ox Club proudly claim that they champion local and regional producers of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables and do them all justice on their USA-imported open wood-fired grill. Mercifully, they’re not self-righteous about their ‘concept’. It’s all about letting the food, carefully graced by the unpredictable heat of a solid-fuel grill, speak for itself. And on this visit there was hardly a misstep.
To accompany perfectly made classic Negronis (£7.50 a pop), the BBQ watermelon would’ve been the sensible choice but the chicken schmaltz – essentially rendered chicken fat with grilled bread for dippage (£4) – simply could not be overlooked. None of the amuse bouche nonsense here, just honest fat and bread. I could happily eat chicken schmaltz and bread for lunch every day.
Jerk monkfish (£26) immediately caught my attention. At Ox Club, the Jamaican treatment of this meaty, often unappealing flatfish (sometimes referred to as ‘poor man’s lobster’) was refreshingly served with pineapple sauce and grilled kale just a few notches away from being singed.
A tender lamb leg and offal skewer (£9) was cooked in a lovely Lea and Perrins marinade and I enjoyed each mouthful taken off the metal spike. Much of the fat was retained on the leg, thus adding to the flavour and compensating for the leaner offal.
A 400g hunk of bone-in sirloin (£29) was cooked perfectly medium rare with the meat cut up for you and the fat served separately (because, you know, they do things healthily here, right down to blitzing tarragon into a béarnaise sauce!). If I’m to whinge about anything, the steak didn’t need the mess of chip sticks on top, arranged haphazardly like shredded clippings from a confidential documents bin – I didn’t see what these added really as they’re too thin to really taste any potato. Far better an accompaniment were the crispy potatoes with ramen seasoning and kimchi mayo, bringing a bit of an Asian twist to proceedings. And for those elusive vegetables, Isle of White tomatoes and grilled courgettes at least provided two of the five a day.
Even desserts get the grilling treatment. Although on this visit we were too stuffed by this point to eat anything else, the grilled strawberry and Burnt Alaska certainly looked strong contenders. There was also a burnt Basque cheesecake, a dessert that now seems to be everywhere, perhaps thanks to Nigella or perhaps the influence of Lurra, who knows.
Despite some minor misgivings about the setting and ambience, it’s impossible to leave Ox Club without being fully sated. All at a reasonable price too. Long may this non-exclusive club continue.
19a The Headrow
by J A Smith