We knew it had to happen sometime. Our sunglasses and sandals have been packed away for another season, rendered useless by the incessant rain and darkness that’s now bookending our commutes. Expressions are glum, sniffles are rife and we’re all moaning about the lampposts of Leeds that have suddenly been straddled by the silhouettes of looming festivity; impatiently waiting to be illuminated so that everyone can be under no allusion: winter is coming.
Yes, we’re all mourning the demise of our unnervingly glorious summer, but the advent of winter serves up solace in its most irresistible form – British comfort food. As we don our cosy jumpers and hibernate until March, picnics and barbecues are replaced with heaving plates of piping hot, consoling roast dinners, thick soups and wickedly indulgent puddings. It’s the comfort food that our little island is famous for, and there’s no better place to enjoy it than in one of the many quintessentially British establishments strewn across every village, town and city throughout the UK. As long as there’s a roaring fire thrown in. There’s got to be a roaring fire.
You’re probably thinking of your local pub now, right? Maybe you’re even in your local pub, pint in hand and left cheek burning by that obligatory roaring fire. Now there’s a thought… British comfort food is practically synonymous with our great local pubs, but they’re not the only place to seek refuge and fantastic comforting grub this Winter. Even after nine Leeds winters, it seems I still haven’t uncovered everything our city has to offer, as I discovered this week when Leeds-List invited me* to enjoy an evening at Sam’s Chop House in the City Centre.
‘Chop House? Are we off out for chops tonight?’ said my OH, his eyes lighting up with a rare maniacal hunger as he contemplated the prospect that I was actually advocating somewhere meaty for a change. And although meat is celebrated throughout the menu at Sam’s Chop House, its name actually refers to a centuries-old tradition that the restaurant seeks to uphold. According to its website, ‘the Chop House’ used to be a men’s only establishment where businessmen gathered to hatch deals over traditionally cooked meats, fine wines and good ales. Thankfully the sexist traditions of its roots have not been upheld, but Sam’s Chop House remains dedicated to championing fantastic local produce, washed down with a wine list that’s consistently showered with awards that have included Leeds’ best wine list. Why had I not been before?
Sam’s Chop House is one of four restaurants owned by the independently run Victorian Chop House Company, with the other three in Manchester. And although the Leeds restaurant may not be able to claim the heritage of its 1872-established Manchester counterpart, it has wonderfully conjured a sense of the bygone era it is aiming to depict. Housed in a building built for Pearl Assurance Ltd in 1911, its façade is a spectacular relic adorned with baroque turrets, marble pillars and even the odd gargoyle.
A striking edifice in an area of Leeds where exquisite architecture is common-place, the Restaurant’s exterior successfully creates an inviting grandeur that demands investigation. Its peripheral majesty is emulated beautifully inside, with mahogany-swathed panelling, glinting chandeliers and beautiful old fireplaces. (They weren’t roaring when we visited, but the potential was there.) Original tiling decorates the floors, its walls are festooned with grainy black and white pictures of the Leeds pubs of yesterday, and tall, arched windows overlook the beguiling architecture of Bonham’s over t’road that tricks you into believing that you have been transported back to the era of the original Chop House. If you ignore the cars. And the fact that no girls were allowed back then…
Simply put, first impressions of Sam’s Chop House were a pleasant surprise indeed. Its simultaneously cosy and grand, striking that fine balance that welcomes without intimidation or pretension.
Aesthetics aside, we were here to eat, so what did the menu tell us about Sam’s Chop House? It’s very fashionable to flaunt affinities with local produce these days, and the emblazonment of ‘The YORKSHIRE GREAT BRITISH MENU’ across the top of the menu left us under no allusion of Sam’s Chop House’s raison d’être. But as overt as this was, they need not have bothered. Just one glimpse of the menu was enough to perfectly make this point without shouty capitals or patriotic illustrations of billowing flags. Thoughtful incarnations of our well-loved British comfort-food classics made an appearance, with their origins geographically pinpointed where possible to highlight that they were serious about local produce. Even better, vegetarians were considered too, with several thought-provoking and enticing options per course. This is where many traditional British pubs let me down, so Sam’s Chop House was looking good.
Enjoying that rare feeling of being torn between several appealing veggie options, I deliberated before eventually deciding on the Goat’s Cheese Rarebit. Posh cheese on toast it may be, but I adore rarebit and the unusual use of goats’ cheese combined with the vessel of pikelet intrigued me. What is a pikelet? Well, it arrived and I *may* have emitted a little squeal. To you and me, a pikelet is a crumpet. A massive, home-made, squidgy, sumptuous crumpet. As with all good crumpets, its pocked surface provided perfect inlets for its mellifluent topping to seep through and gather in glorious, seductive pools. The goat’s cheese was creamy, but lacked that sharp tang that you’d normally expect. This tang was delivered in the form of the sleek caramelised red onions beneath the goat’s cheese and the balsamic glaze that the pikelet rested on. Surrounding the rarebit were soft, punchy chunks of beetroot, which combined with the rarebit to produce a mouthful of winter magic.
Intrigue was also the driving force behind the selection of my main course: Vegetarian Black Pudding. ‘Vegetarian’ is the antithesis of everything Black Pudding stands for. Its connotations are enough to make any serious vegetarian shudder, so why on earth would anyone try and create a vegetarian black pudding and tout this as a good thing? Enticed by this audacity, I took the risk and when it arrived, its appearance suggested my risk may have backfired. It looked like, well, a black pudding. And other things that I won’t mention. But actually, the taste was a contradictory surprise. A dense concoction of pearl barley, rusk, rolled oats, vegetable suet and barley flour, it had a very distinctive flavour unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. But it was good. Really good. Perhaps the addition of blood-red beetroot took its realism a little too far, though. Accompanying the black pudding was ‘Bubble and Squeak’, interpreted as a potato cake and a satisfying mound of cabbage blanketed in a herb and butter sauce. Although everything was a little under-seasoned, it felt like proper winter comfort food, and I devoured the lot.
Pleasing the carnivorous end of the table, the Ham Hock Scotch Egg was highly commended. Evidently home-made, the chefs succeeded in that unenviable task of producing a well-cooked egg with an oozy yolk that streamed from the centre like molten gold. Surrounding the egg was a mixture of ham hock and minced pork shoulder from Helmsley, coated in crispy breadcrumbs that lacked the grease that can often cling to mass-produced scotch eggs, which this was definitely not. High praise was also bestowed upon the 8oz Rump Steak for the quality of the cut as well as the perfect translation of the request for medium-rare.
As winter intensifies its grip over the coming months, have a look beyond your local for a dose of great British comfort food. You may have to put on an extra layer for the trip, but it will be worth it when you taste the spoils that Sam’s Chop House has to offer. The fire might even be on when you get there.
*FYI – I received a free meal in exchange for writing a review, but all views are my own (and my OH’s in relation to the meat!)!