Halifax is having a moment. After almost four years of renovation the historic Grade I* listed Piece Hall has thrown open its magnificent carved wooden doors. For decades it’s been underused and crumbling; photos from the 1980s show it on its knees.
On a sharp, sunny day, you could be in an Italian piazza; the honeyed stone balustrades glow and folk are sitting out drinking prosecco and gin cocktails. I know! Tucked into a corner (but enjoying full sun) is Elder, a café/bar/bistro; outside, a pleasant terrace.
Chef/owner Justin Thomas’s offer is small sharing plates. If this sounds twee, think again; the menu is stripped-back, intelligently thought-through and instantly appealing. ‘Nibbles’ include homemade pickles, sourdough toast with pork butter and buttermilk, Cheddar & thyme dip with tenderstem broccoli – you’ll agree they jump off the page, but our attention was caught by char-grilled corn on the cob (£3.25) and pease pudding (£5). The corn is briefly shown the grill and matched with a piquant miso and chilli mayo – I can’t tell you how pretty a plate it is (‘it’s a work of art!’ opines chum Amy) and how deep the flavour of the dip.
Next up, ‘warm plates’ promising roast cauliflower with lemon & tarragon dressing – but they’ve just shifted the last one, so the roast pork belly and brisket are quickly snaffled. The beautifully cooked belly (a steal at £7.50) arrives on soused cabbage with a herb & caper sauce; it’s well judged, with a pleasing sharpness from the capers; another good looking plate of food. Braised brisket comes with buttered greens and a scatter of hazelnuts; the beef is sweetly tender and pink.
We choose ‘sides’; carrot salad (finely grated, with translucent radish discs, a sharp vinaigrette and flax seeds – really fresh and crunchy) courgette, whisper thin and scattered with mint, pine nuts and chilli, and roast baby spuds with ham hock and Cheddar – a welcome blast of comfort on a chill day. But nothing can prepare us for a dish we spot on the chalkboard just in the nick of time. ‘Lamb fat mashed potatoes, greens and lamb gravy’. It is simply stupendous, and makes us not just happy, but firecrackers happy.
Justin Thomas is pretty much self-taught, though he put some time in at Kendell’s in Leeds and he is doing something quite extraordinary here. He’s producing interesting and unusual dishes in a small space – this sort of cooking looks deceptively easy. The appeal lies in its simple honesty; here’s friendly food that does not overstrive. Prices are ungrasping – you will enjoy a very fine meal for less than £50. The vibe is smart, modern and thoughtful; Elder is a cracking little gem.