Simon Richardson ups his sodium levels to breaking point at Harrogate’s newest modern dining spot
If you were to ask me what the best restaurant in Leeds was, pound for pound, I’d overenthusiastically shout “Ox Club” right in your face before you’d even finished your sentence. So, as soon as I spotted that Josh Whitehead and Andy Castle were opening a place called Samsons up in Harrogate, I bagsied the review.
By the time I’ve finished, our accommodation seems a long way away, despite it being opposite the restaurant
The location doesn’t surprise me – Josh has spent the last few years getting intimate with venison and the like up at Harewood. But there’s also a distinct nod to their previous haunt on the menu, so a bit of distance probably makes sense. Anyway, we decide to make an overnight of it, warming up for proceedings with a wander around Harlow Carr before a couple of drinks in The Little Ale House.
Granted, there’s a world of difference between visiting a restaurant on a Wednesday night and a weekend, but all the same, it's slightly unnerving to be the only people in the whole place. That said, the music and the lighting have been set quite expertly, so we don’t feel like we're rattling around, despite it being a large open space. We get a couple of drinks at the bar and peruse the menu, which is a concise mix of small and/or sharing plates with several mains, then move to our table for a few belt looseners to ease us in.
First up, oysters (£3.50 each) – something I will order without fail whenever they appear on a menu. We’ve got rhubarb, seaweed and vinegar, and chorizo, all complementing each other perfectly, offering salt, spice, and a fresh zing. One of them’s been grilled too. Phwoar. Wish I’d had a glass of fizz now. The eel hash brown (£5) comes next, with a lovely light smokiness that doesn’t overpower, although it’s a touch heavy on the sorrel sauce. Short rib nuggets (£5) are a mixed bag – some are as melt-in-the-mouth as you’d want, but others are tougher and chewier, suggesting that the distribution of fat isn’t particularly even across the nuggets. They’re also the saltiest thing on earth – that definitely needs dialling back.
Moving up a plate size, we’ve got small plates. The crumpet part of duck crumpet (£11) is superb – fluffy, with a crisp bottom (oo-er missus), but I was definitely hoping for some Chinese-style crispiness to the meat and again, a bit less salt. The mackerel fillet (£10) is perfectly cooked with that hallmark contrast of textures and smokiness, but the gooseberry in the purée has gone missing a touch, meaning the dish is lacking sharpness to complement the fattiness of the mackerel.
At this point, we pause for water – a lot of water. There have been many positives on show so far, but the salt is starting to catch up with us. Of course, some of it isn’t water though – it’s wine, and a belter it is too. Joel Gott Pinot Noir (£62) – think juicy, not overly acidic red fruit with a long, warm, spicy finish. For our mains, one of us has ordered fish and the other red meat, so we need something not so heavy as to overpower the former, while still retaining enough kick to stand up to the latter.
Speaking of which, the bass (£28) once again showcases precision cooking, albeit with a slightly overwhelming crab sauce, while the Porterhouse steak (£40) is a beautiful cut, rich and deep in flavour, with dribbly fat rendering and just a little hint to Ox Club in its presentation. The only issue here is the ceps, which have been turned into quite powdery shoestring fries, the process serving to remove the pleasurable taste and texture of the mushroom. I’d have much preferred actual chips, to be honest. We dip into the sides specifically to order hispi cabbage (£5.50), with its chicken skin drawing yet more memories of my Leeds love. This one needs a bit of work though, as the crispiness of the cabbage is (literally) lost under far too much bread, and the Caesar dressing has gone too heavy on the anchovies, creating flavours and textures that fight each other rather than working together in harmony.
To stay we’re stuffed at this point would be an understatement but - purely in the interests of completionism, you understand - I summon a Herculean effort and order a chocolate and spent coffee trifle (£8.50). My wife hates it, but I enjoy the mixture of crumbly, crunchy, chocolatey stuff all crammed into a glass ramekin on legs. It’s like one of those Gü desserts, but even posher. It does mean I have to eat the whole thing though, and by the time I’ve finished, our accommodation seems a long way away, despite it being opposite the restaurant. It’s like having tunnel vision, but the tunnel has been created by an extra layer of face fat folding itself in over my eyes.
At the end, when the manager asks us for feedback, we decide to mention the amount of salt across the meal and are promptly given a discount. She’s been engaging, helpful and generally on it throughout – it would have been quite easy to have fallen asleep in an empty restaurant. In fact, like most of the food, I’d call it slick; there’s obvious ability on display and all the basics are done with aplomb. Some of the dishes need tweaking, which is understandable given the newness of the venture, and I’d like to see a bit more adventurousness on the menu to tempt me out of Leeds, too. It all feels quite safe and well within the comfort zone of two talented chefs.
Perhaps that’s the point though – nail what you know before branching out. I can’t really argue with that.
Samsons, Cheltenham Crescent, Harrogate HG1 1DQ
Follow Simon Richardson on Instagram @lunatic_on_the_grass
- Please note: Shortly after this review was written Josh Whitehead contacted us to say he has now left the business.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
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.
Oysters 9, eel hash brown 7, short rib nuggets 5, duck crumpet 7, mackerel 7, porterhouse steak 7, sea bass 8, hispi cabbage 4, trifle 6
Slick and attentive
To be fair, they got the music volume spot on, so we barely noticed we were the only ones there