Lean times, rich pickings

Jim Ainsworth on a Halifax eatery that turns sound economics to the cus tomer's advantage
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If there has been a silver lining to the recessionary cloud, it must be that many restaurants have discovered good food need not be expensive.

Escoffier's 17th Law of the Kitchen states that the greater the decline in economic circumstances, the more inventive cooking must become. Instead of plain grilled fillet steak, we resort to stir-fried insides and casser-oled extremities, with a concomi-tant hike in flavour; instead of turbot or sea bass, we use herring or Scarborough woof. Instead of boiling and straining sauces for three days, we moisten the food with a little oil and lemon juice. We use more pasta, rediscover pulses and, if all else fails, eat a bit less at lunch time.

What we emphatically do not need to do when money is tight is to compromise on quality. "Good food should be available at any level, it shouldn't be out of anybody's reach, whether it's just a sandwich, a jar of jam, or a full meal," says John Leach, owner of the Design House Restaurant in Halifax. As a mission statement, it is hard to beat, and leads Leach to conclude that he would "rather serve 80 people, with low margins, than 20 people with high mark-ups". Three cheers for common sense.

The restaurant is the latest thing to happen at Dean Clough, a former carpet mill built along solid mid-Victorian lines, cleaned up, refurbished and put back to use by Sir Ernest Hall. He is an unlikely combination of concert pianist and businessman, a sort of northern equivalent of Sir Terence Conran, a man with imagination and vision - and the money to make things work. Insurance companies and an art gallery (among other tenants) have gradually filled the vast gritty millstone building, which began it s new lease of life a dozen years ago.

The restaurant opened in October. Gleaming chrome, glass, and white walls dominate with just enough curves, partitions and curtains to break up the clean lines into manageable chunks.

Light jazz background music helps to soften any remaining hard edges. The sandwiches, salads and jars of jam, together with breads, oils and sundry other comestibles, are sold in the cafe-bar and in the delicatessen.

When John Leach heard that David Watson was not going to follow the Pool Court team in last year's transfer from their Wharf-edale idyll to the centre of Leeds, he picked him up and put him in place as chef - in effect he was the last piece of the jigsaw. Given the teamwork of sympathetic landlord, enlightened owner and talented chef, it would be a wonder, indeed a crying shame, if it didn't all work out.

Despite its brevity, the menu is balanced. Lunch is a modest affair of two or three courses, with a choice of three items at each. Soup (Jerusalem artichoke, or pea and ham, for example), a salad, or perhaps a tempura of cod or chicken, may be followed by Scarborough woof, comfit of guinea fowl with pearl barley, red wine and root vegetables, or a pasta dish such as fusilli with peppers, leeks, pesto and aubergine.

Good use of vegetables (roots, greens and sunny Mediterranean), Yorkshire-landed fish, and sweet-spicy flavours characterise David Watson's approach. Dinner is a la carte and runs to smoked Whitby cod with spinach and mustard butter, spiced vegetables onchar-grilled brioche with a mint and yogurt dressing, and pears on puff pastry with ginger and lime.

Watson keeps the tastes upbeat with dabs of sharp lime and lemon, and mixes slow-cooked and last-minute stir-fries to vary the appeal. In a typical dish, salmon croquettes were bound in a coating of sesame seeds for the necessary crunch, and came with a stir-fry of vegetables sweetened with honey and spiked with just enough chilli to register.

But what impresses even more than the juggling of flavours is the competent handling of basics. lt is reassuring to find perfectly creamed potatoes served up with the shin of beef (goulash-style with tomato, paprika and a splash of soured cream), and to come across a jug of really good, freshly made, vanilla-flecked thin custard to ladle over the light syrup sponge. The only major lapses in a lunch for two were a surfeit of de-veined lime segments with the lightly cured salmon, and some lengths of stiff, dry and tasteless noodle that might have been extruded from a toy-shop noodle gun.

The good news is that two courses at lunch cost £9.50, while three cost £12.75. A three-course a la carte dinner with one of the sensibly chosen wines should work out at rather less than £20 a head. Beers are good (served in the proper glasses, too), andsandwiches and salads make a light lunch possible for less than a fiver a head.

p Design House Restaurant, Dean Clough, Halifax HX3 5AX, West Yorkshire (0422 383242). Lunch Monday-Friday 12-2pm. Dinner Monday-Saturday 6-10.30pm. Closed Sunday. Cafe-bar and delicatessen open Monday-Friday 9.30am-10.30pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm.

p Emily Green is on holiday.

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