Sarah Cotterill has a virtuous feast at this six-week-old bistro
FREQUENTLY wracked with indecision, here was a place I could breathe. Hern makes you wish everywhere offered only the one menu (set menu of four courses £28, with cheese £35). Revealed daily to celebrate the kitchen’s glut of local produce, this is relaxed dining at its finest – there’s no flapping around between the fish or the gnocchi; you get what you’re bloody well given.
There is something quite sacred about Hern – the purity of the ingredients, the reverential service, the welcome simplicity
It feels very much like eating in someone’s conservatory. The shop front consists of large white plastic panels, with Hern stamped above the door, a chained picture frame hanging in the window to denote tonight’s dishes. Inside there are just 22 covers, and no expense has been wasted on masking electrical wiring and rough brick walls. Just one print decorates the room, depicting a series of a girl, who eventually gets swallowed up by the phone in her hand. My ginormous camera flashlight is not going to be very incognito here.
The scant space is warmed by the service. This is a two-man operation – Scottish chef and owner Rab (who’s spent time at Josh Overington’s Le Cochon Aveugle and a Gordon Ramsay outfit down in London) sporadically appears in a spattered denim apron to join Shaun front of house. Their knowledge is infallible. Copies of David Chang’s Momofuku and Silo’s The Zero Waste Blueprint line the shelves. The minimal ethos is certainly evident. Tables are dressed effortlessly with elegant glassware and a box of cutlery reminiscent of a school DT class.
The homemade sodas are a must-try; today a tangy fig leaf or lemon, ginger and mint (£2). The Wayward wines are all natural and unfiltered, and our Spanish white Cartoixa (£6) is dark ochre in colour and full of farmyard funk. Shaun describes my glass of house red (£6) as a ‘boozy choice’, a Syrah-Grenache blend from the Rhône Valley, evocative of the silver goblet taken at Mass. Indeed there is something quite sacred about Hern – the purity of the ingredients, the reverential service, the welcome simplicity of it all.
Rab is the former baker behind ROOPS, so the bread is chewy, soft and yeasty in all the right places, and there’s plenty on offer. My eyeballs turn into sourdough-shaped astigmatisms, hovering the acorn dairy butter patty over my broth to melt it. This, a cup of celeriac broth that comes as part of the spread of snacks, is served with spoons to slurp up the pleasing cubes of celeriac lurking at the bottom. The homemade black pudding sits like a hockey puck next to a smear of pear puree, glossy and gel like; a tart compliment to the deliciously rich, crumbly sausage. Chicken rillettes are milder, fatty and creamed, with baby pickled vegetables alongside. There’s also a dressed salad of bitter leaves, crimson radicchio tossed with walnuts. The snacks, alone more than my average lunch, set the tone for a well-executed feast.
Next comes a bright squash risotto, which is wet like the best kind of scrambled eggs. The rice has a lovely bite to it, mixed through with well-seasoned chunks of pale house bacon. It’s piping hot and a real treat with the red wine and salty shavings of pecorino.
Venison from the Harewood Estate is meltingly thin and artfully laid on the plate, smoked beetroot peeking above a smoother than smooth celeriac puree. Sour rowan berries, which we are humbly told are hand-foraged, cut through the savoury game and earthy roots.
The vegetarian equivalent is a handful of wilted kale, which has lost a little of its vibrancy, tumbled against sweet wedges of white beetroot and fluffy ricotta. A twist of black pepper wouldn’t go amiss here, but the puffed pearl barley gives it an incredible crunch.
For a £7 supplement, you can add a cheese course, which we gladly share – French style, before dessert. George & Joseph Cheesemongers have come up trumps with an outstanding Leeds Blue from Harrogate sheep’s milk, a French Langres with a pasty cranium-like rind, and a slice of Ossau-Iraty from the monasteries of the Pyrenees. The homemade quince and apple chutney is a little overpowering and sweet alongside the raisin-flecked rye bread, but it’s an ecclesiastical ceremony; a woodland picnic, where your sole utensil is a pocket pen-knife.
Still, heaven awaits in the form of poached pears. The firm yet juicy, translucent segments bathe in artichoke custard. Yes, you heard me. Real ambrosial nectar, with a condensed milk velvety sheen, topped with a beautiful brown butter ice cream and slivered almonds. The ice cream is a little grainy and meringue-like in texture, but I really could not care less. I want more.
Hern makes you wish you lived in Chapel Allerton. Who needs Lyle’s? We’ve got all the wooden furniture and small plates in the Leeds suburbs. It feels modern yet nostalgic. I wouldn’t mind making a den under one of their spindle-backed chairs, nesting there Tuesday to Saturday, nibbling on crumbs of rye bread and cheese. If I was lucky, they’d let me lick the ceramics clean after pudding.
Hern, 5 Stainbeck Corner, Chapel Allerton, LS7 2EY
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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.
Snacks 7, risotto 8, venison 8, beetroot and ricotta 6, cheese 7, pears 10
Knowledgeable and humble
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