TONY NAYLOR REVIEWS What did our contributing editor think of the charcuterie hotspot, Ham & Friends?
Set in the foodie paradise of Leeds’ Victorian Grand Arcade, this is, not surprisingly with this name, a charcuterie hotspot
In an era when the London restaurant Sexy Fish thrives and people eat at the extraordinarilynamed Cabbages & Condoms restaurants (FYI they fund a sexual health NGO in Thailand), you may argue that what you call a restaurant is irrelevant. Create good food or a glam destination and people will come, regardless of any dissonant allusions to prophylactics or curvy cod with come-to-bed eyes. Nonetheless, I dislike the dreary predictability of Ham & Friends, a spin-off from the Friends of Ham venues, which, in Leeds and Ilkley, serve cured meats of distinction alongside A1 craft beers. Granted, it’s hard to stretch that porcine conceit further (try it: Piggy Pals sounds juvenile; the Pleasures of Pork pornographic), and I can see how Ham & Friends emphasises the conviviality of this enterprise. But it also rather undersells this foodie spectacular. Folded into Leeds’ Victorian Grand Arcade – an architectural stunner which lends Ham & Friends a certain grandeur – this multilevel complex comprises a bar, restaurant, delicatessen, George & Joseph’s cheese shop, a vintners and the Yorkshire Wine School. On a Thursday night, it was buzzing with activity. Regulars were enjoying the monthly cheese club and, upstairs, artisan wine-maker Le Grappin (H&F loves smallproducer, biodynamic and natural wines), was holding a tasting – a scene to make any Good Food reader giddy. In some ways, it’s a pity I was booked into the restaurant. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a cool ‘n’ comfortable, modish space, and the aproned staff were sunny and obliging (if you can catch their eye; the design of the room is not great in that regard). Likewise, the food is solid 6/10 stuff. But, frankly, and particularly in the context of this living celebration of exceptional produce, the lack of finesse and, at times, bold flavours in these small plates was frustrating. A platter of charcuterie was a terrific kaleidoscope of funky flavours, but pointlessly warmed bread (not toasted, more hardened), served with deliriously creamy butter, set a precedent of ham-fisted (sorry!) flaws which persisted through every dish. With the exception of the breaded lamb ‘scrumpet’ balls with salsa verde. Those I could have inhaled a dozen of. For instance, a dish of fried Old Winchester potato dumplings, caramelised cauliflower and hazelnuts is, initially, heaven: a savoury crescendo of hard-browned cheesy carbs. But it lacks something (more herbs or some lemon zest), to cut through its, ultimately, rather one-dimensional greasiness. Similarly, the borderline dry, flavour-light pig’s cheeks (the irony!) undermine an otherwise beautiful dish of lemon-tinged, shaved Jerusalem artichoke in a cracking blanquette. Rather mushy, dull mackerel marred a sound idea: off-setting the oily fish and its smoky grilled skin with pickled fennel. And dessert of (flourless, I’m guessing) chocolate cake lacked real cocoa kapow! And without any boozy or sour edge, the cherries added little. The pacing did not help, either. Despite my pleas, as is so often the case with small plates, these were not sufficiently staggered. After a first wave, then a gap, too much food turned up too quickly. By the time we got to the octopus and nduja broth, it was lukewarm. That is no way to enjoy such a punchy, peasant dish. As a concept, I love Ham & Friends. Come, shop, browse, drink fascinating wine (a Landron Chartier pet-nat red was our pick), snack on fine charcuterie, eat cheese, knock yourself out. In many ways, it’s a foodie nirvana. But the restaurant could be sharper.