Neil Sowerby finds real culinary substance in Rammy
IT’s a tough climate out there and I don’t just mean the howitzer gale that’s shuffling our slates I as write this in my attic. An ill wind has rattled our restaurant chains too in the wake of Brexit economic carnage and all kinds of trading constraints. Jamie’s Italians are dropping like gnocchi in a pot, Strada is also feeling the strain, while beleaguered Byron Burgers threatens further closures by the month, it seems (our Corn Exchange branch is now a forlorn shell).
Everywhere fat cats just got thinner. Or did they? Brands are still being rolled out across the land – big bucks backers conjuring a gap in the market for some bright-looking concept to go forth and multiply. Call it Gino genius.
Pity then the under-resourced independent focused on quality while still bearing all the rent and cost burdens. Current cause célèbre is Norse restaurant in Harrogate. Their owners posted a plea on Twitter for customers to support them after a torrid pre-Christmas, at the same time attempting to steady the ship by reinstating a la carte alongside their Scandi tasting menus. The media big guns are on their side – the Observer’s Jay Rayner championing their cause, while Marina O’Loughlin raced north to review Norse favourably for the Sunday Times in January.
Which brings us to a Hungry Duck that’s swimming against the tide. While lots of restaurants, particularly those in hotels are dumbing down, this tiny Ramsbottom bistro is stretching its wings (enough duckwit metaphors – Ed). Not that it’s attempting the palate challenges of Norse; owner Joe Kaczmar funded a nifty, quite feminine makeover in the autumn and now it’s a more appropriate setting for some fine, well-sourced food from chef Cassie Bond and her team.
As we worked our way appreciatively through a three course parade of scallops, beef, venison and rose veal with a vibrantly fruity bottle of Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon, Pasarisa (£29), around us there were ladies light lunching on sandwiches or lingering over a latte.
'Comfort and a restless spirit, not obvious bedfellows'
So neighbourhood, so Ramsbottom, where a new raft of foodie heroes has sprung up in a town too small to be targeted by chains. Where once it was name checked for the legendary Ramsons, then Sanmini’s (RIP both restaurants) and superior gastropubs Hearth of the Ram and Eagle and Child, now it’s all about casual – Bridge Street alone boasts Grape to Grain wine bar, Grind & Tamp’s artisan coffee and vegan restaurant/retro cocktail haunt Lolo’s. We could see them all from the Duck’s window. Thirty seconds away are stupendous Iberian siblings Baratxuri and Levanter plus The Vineyard wine shop that supplies the Hungry Duck’s wide ranging wine list.
So what does our gussied up bistro bring to the party? Comfort and a restless spirit, not obvious bedfellows. It’s food that is technically adroit, not over-elaborate but is obviously responding to a changing roster of raw materials, rooted but in no clichéd way.
My potted Bowland beef starter is a world away from the jellied, peppery slab you might acquire from Bury Market but its an obvious second cousin. For £7 I get a handsome portion, lifted by the heft of their own horseradish butter. It comes on toast, which is as well because on two occasions we’d requested house bread, but it never turned up. A demon inside me rails at having to fork out for a portion of bread and butter (I like complimentary olives, too), but the prospect of house smoked sea salt rosemary butter and treacle vinegar for £4.50 seduced us – in vain.
Second starter is twice the price (£14) – over the top even for Shetland scallops as handsome as these with their riffs on ham and pea and cashew and pumpkin matching the nuttiness of the seared scallops.
Rose veal chops have become a compulsion of mine. The 10oz rose veal cutlet at city centre newcomer, Store Street Exchange, was the best thing on the menu at £27.50. The HD’s was a fiver cheaper, easily its equal and with a carrot fondant, crisped savoy and rosemary/garlic fries our stand-out dish. Rare loin of venison (£18) came with hints of chocolate in the sauce and reassuring buttermilk fondant potato and a pinnacle of roast parsnip.
Puddings trailed in the wake of such joy on a plate. A special of brioche bread and butter pudding (£6) underwhelmed, while a toothsome sticky toffee pudding didn’t hit the heights of a recent mejdool date-led example at the Lowry Hotel.
So, there is no obvious successor here to Ramsons in its Good Food Guide heyday, while the compulsory dining destination in Ramsbottom remains Joe Botham’s Baratxuri, in particular the roasted marvels from its clay oven, but the Hungry Duck is still a bistro with real culinary substance. Let’s hope it keeps its head above water (didn’t we say lose the duckwittery? Ed.).
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.
Scallops 7, Potted Beef 8, Venison 7, Veal 8, Sticky Toffee Pudding 7, Brioche Pudding 6
Cushions, artwork and lights – a bit showroom
A happy ship, just don’t forget the bread basket next time