Tony Naylor is a Manchester-based journalist who regularly writes for olive as well as Restaurant magazine and The Guardian
Jodie Dobb is a student services manager from Flixton, Manchester. She eats out as often as possible and her favourite new haunt is Hawksmoor.
Ox Club is in Headrow House, a former textile mill built in the early 1900s, opened in October 2015 following a multi-million pound investment. It’s also home to a cocktail bar and beer hall.
The focal point at Ox Club is a Grillworks grill imported from Michigan – it’s used to cook everything from hanger steak to guinea fowl, hake and razor clams. Expect delicate accompaniments such as buttermilk polenta with tea and molasses brine; creamed flageolet beans with bacon jam; or Jerusalem artichoke with mushrooms and ymerdrys (a Danish sugared rye bread crumb).
Although vegetarian options are limited, the side dishes are all innovative and vegetable-based: try brussels sprouts with bacon and cured egg yolk, coal-roasted beetroot with muscovado walnuts, or kale with chard, cider and golden raisins.
Our young waiter was a living lesson in accomplished, modern service. He was at-ease and welcoming without being OTT and succinctly explained the sharing-plates menu without patronising us (no ‘have you been to a Harvester before?’ syndrome). He also fielded questions about the menu – for instance, the ymerdrys – with aplomb. *I was not recognised.
The service was cold and impersonal to begin with, but vastly improved when we met our knowledgeable waitress. We were given a bottle of tap water as soon as we sat down, but no bread (unlike our neighbours) so I had to ask for it. Had I not, I wouldn’t have got to try one of my favourites of the night – chicken schmaltz (rendered fat flavoured with herbs)!
At Headrow House’s sister-venue, Belgrave Music Hall – a similarly multi-functional eating, drinking and arts space – chef Ben Davy created two of Leeds’ best-loved food outlets, Dough Boys and Patty Smiths’ burgers (its skin-on fries reappear here). In terms of its sophistication, Ox Club is a significant step-up from such street food – one that’s only sporadically successful.
Decent fennel-spiked bread served with warm chicken schmaltz was a novel and delicious opener, unlike the starters proper. Pairing burrata with hay-smoked mozzarella is clever, but the dish – with no trace of the advertised lemon – lacked sharp, citrussy punctuation. Like the burrata, flavourful, herb-packed pork rillettes were served still a shade too cold from the chiller and the accompanying pickles needed more poke. It all tasted a bit flat. Later, a grainy, loose meringue on the lemon tart was a notable error.
Given the expense and hassle that the Ox Club went to in bringing over its solid-fuel, Michigan-made Grillworks grill (hence the boxes of wood dotted around the restaurant), you would expect its grill dishes to shine – and they did. A hanger steak was long on gamey flavours and it came with a béarnaise and a salsa verde. The detail (tarragon in the former, mint in the latter) was unusually clear. Slow-cooked ox cheeks came with bacon jam and that ymerdrys-sweetened jerusalem artichoke sauce worked well with cod. A side of charred cauliflower with romesco sauce sounds humble, but was a knockout combination of heat, smoke and vegetable flavours.
The menu was small (but appealing) and described as a sharing experience – food came as and when it was ready. Nocellara olives were supposedly flavoured with orange and bay but lacked either flavour; burrata and smoked mozzarella was potent and comforting although we couldn’t detect the promised fennel; and cherrywood smoked trout and cured salmon was paired with a crisp and refreshing medley of shredded horseradish, beetroot and apple.
Ox cheek from the wood grill had a firm, almost black exterior with soft flesh that succumbs to the fork and went well with creamy flageolet beans. Cod – crispy skin and juicy flesh – was sprinkled with ymerdrys and rested on top of
jerusalem artichoke purée with mushrooms; our favourite dish of the night. Roast cauliflower had a smoky BBQ flavour and was coated in a romesco sauce; and coal-roasted beetroot is paired with tangy curd and crunchy walnuts.
The dessert selection was a little underwhelming, but the ‘special of the day’, chocolate orange cake was as light as air and accompanied by a delectable brownie-cum-ganache. A cheeseboard included smooth goat’s milk cheddar with pickled ginger; brie (served a little too cold for our liking) with sharp, vinegary raisins; and an award-winning buttery Stoney Cross cheese that we speedily devoured. We weren’t offered any wine recommendations but were happily content with a Manon tempranillo that came served at the perfect temperature.
The bottom line
There’s a lot to like about Ox Club. It feels and looks great: warm lighting, cool rustic-industrial design. The staff are bright, its craft beer list is unusually interesting and the pricing is keen. But outside its stellar grill dishes, the food needs fine-tuning. Tony’s total for two: £78.10, including service
Ox Club is a fresh and exciting restaurant with a diverse menu and interesting flavours. It’s small but inviting with an open-plan kitchen giving you the opportunity to see the Grillworks grill in action. I will definitely return for the chicken schmaltz alone. Jodie’s total for two: £100, including service
Ox Club is all fired up about cooking with solid fuel, wood and charcoal and it’s not just the locally sourced, free-range or pasture fed meat that sees the flames. Razor clams and hake are among the seafood items to feel the heat too. Fortunately, regulations passed in Scotland in 2014 prohibited electro-fishing for razor clams, a technique whereby fishermen pass an electric current through the water, forcing the clams to the surface, often killing other fish in the surrounding waters.
So rest easy if you order these at Ox Club. And the veg, including the whole cauliflowers which get the barbeque treatment too, are all bought at the Leeds market where local growers sell their produce. There’s a wide choice of UK craft beers to choose from too. Staff go on regular visits to the producers who supply the restaurant which means they’re always ready to answer customers’ questions about provenance.
As for the fuel that fires this restaurant, well we’re pleased to report that it all comes from broadleaf woodlands which thrive on being regularly thinned out and a large proportion of it is from Yorkshire and deliveries are kept to a minimum. No need to haul them over the coals for that.
This week we celebrate Yorkshire Day with web editor Alex Crossley (who also happens to be from Yorkshire!). Alex returns to her home county to explore the independent food scene in Leeds including a lesson in British charcuterie from Friends of Ham as well as matching speciality coffee with Yorkshire-made sweet treats at North Star.
olive magazine podcast ep63 – Leeds independent food scene special