Neil Sowerby is pleased to see this mothballed Calder Valley pub rescued and filled with joy
IT’S never been quite the same adventure for me getting to the Manchester incarnation of El Gato Negro. The shuttle bus from Victoria Station and a stroll up King Street can’t hold a candle to slaloming down ice-packed Pennine roads in the dark. Or getting lost on an epic moorland march and stumbling into a slurry pit en route, which happened once.
That was when Simon Shaw’s original restaurant was high up in Ripponden, West Yorks and a certain Mark Kemp, far from his Omagh home, was rising through the sous chef ranks to become Simon’s right hand man.
There was a lovely rhythm to the arrival of so many dishes. We over-ordered, but so would you.
A few years on and this neck of the woods (and there are woods aplenty) is consumed by fresh culinary excitement with the advent of The Moorcock at Norland. It’s also a hike to get to the Good Food Guide’s ‘Best Newcomer’ and number four in Confidentials own Top 100 Restaurants in the North West, given 9.5/10 for its food by this reviewer.
So think of Engine Social Dining as a kind of Calder Valley base camp. It may not be aiming for the Moorcock’s game-changing heights, but it’s compelling all the same. And just five minutes’ gentle stroll from Sowerby Bridge Rail Station, equidistant from Manchester and Leeds. Ensconced in the recently transformed pub is Kemp and co-owner Wil Akroyd, who met when they were head chef and manager respectively of Halifax fave Ricci’s, whose more ambitious Leeds venture bombed earlier this year.
The pair converted a mothballed old pub on Sowerby Bridge’s main drag, close to Gimbals (number 44 in our Top 100 – blessed are the Calder folk). ‘Social Dining’ gives the game away. Freed from the label constraints of tapas, cicchetti and Michael Ricci-led Italian allegiances, their ‘global small plate vision’ has taken wing rapidly. Only open since August, it is rammed every night and I’ve not been so excited by a team in open kitchen overdrive since The Palomar off Shaftesbury Avenue. OK, the chefs aren’t singing bad Israeli pop or handing you free shots of Arak, but this is an old West Yorkshire mill town.
As late arrivals, we shared a table that was hubbub central, hard to avoid unintentional frottage with bustling servers. Amid all this, front of house Wil was calmness personified as he talked us though the usual ‘allow for two or three dishes per person, they will come out as and when’. Usually, the alarm bells start ringing, especially with a menu shot through with global aspiration, but not here. There was a lovely rhythm to the arrival of so many dishes. We over-ordered, but so would you.
Engine Negronis, mingling Bloomsbury Amer, sweet vermouth and manzanilla sherry were a Marmite of an aperitif, but the reds we shared, an organic Bordeaux and a multi-cuve Loire Pinot Noir were delicately flavoured and affordable – sourced from Borough Wines in London – typical of the same attention to detail evident across the menu.
So many dull Parmesan fries in the world, but not here – thick cut chips doused in truffle aioli and properly aged Parmesan for a fiver. Padron peppers (£3.50) were an equally superior nibble, stuffed with whipped nduja and soft cheese and tempura battered, while piquillos (£4) with a stuffing all of their own – of goat cheese, mascarpone and herbs – lavishly partnered with smoked tomatoes and rocket in a honey and balsamic dressing.
Coccioli? Me neither. These slightly dry Manchego dumplings were a redundant note in a cute assembly of Jamon Aragon Gran Reserva and bittersweet figs (£7). A rhubarb and fruit sriracha hot sauce, herb chutney and spring onions were worthy of more than the slightly limp salt and pepper aubergine (£5) they accompanied, but a small gripe among the cavalcade of treats streaming out of Kemp’s rock and roll kitchen.
Next up a triple whammy of fishiness – a special of pan seared scallops, artichoke, truffle and parmesan puree (£9); a chargrilled octopus on a slick of cafe de Paris aubergine puree with tomato, oregano and pine nuts (£8), both exceptional, and – most satisfying of all – the Engine’s take on the North African fish stew chraymeh, packed with mussels in a spicy broth of tomato, parsley and confit pepper, topped by two substantial tranches of sea bream (£8).
After these delights came the only real let down. A tempting sounding £9 special of venison, ordered at the last minute, came tough as the proverbial old boots. A pity because the autumnal treatment it was given –caramelised figs, globe artichokes, wild mushroom and membrillo jus – was as radiant as russet leaves.
Instant redemption came with a dish that could have been all global fusion confusion but was a fascinating cross-fertilisation. Pulled pork and spicy Mallorcan sausage sobrasada filled the home-made ‘Asian ravioli’; what made the dish really sing was the chipotle and baked apple puree and sweet black pepper sauce (£6).
Puddings all hover around the £5 mark and don’t feel like an afterthought. My favourite was the delicate caramelised lemon and elderflower tart with strawberry sorbet and macerated strawberries, but the triple chocolate brownie mousse and ganache with peanut butter ice cream, and the burnt honey and thyme panna cotta sour cherry and smashed biscuit both confirmed a crowd-pleasing kitchen at the top of its game.
The small towns of England are littered with boarded-up pubs, like The Engineers was. Good to see it rescued and filled with such joy. And good to see the legacy of the original El Gato living on in these parts. Full steam ahead.
Engine Social Dining, 72 Wharf St, Sowerby Bridge HX6 2AF | Tel: 01422 740123
Images: Engine Social Dining (sorry, it was very dark and ours weren't up to standard)
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Padrons 8, piquillo peppers 9, jamon 8, aubergines 7, octopus 9, parmesan chips 9, sea bream 8, gyozas 9, venison 5, scallops 8, brownie 7, lemon tart 8, panna cotta 8
Buzzy. Come on everybody, do the locomotion
Stripped stone, bare boards but glowing