Wry understatement is common currency in this corner of the Pennines.
So when the large, round-faced man on the next table growls “There’s nowt wrong with this pie” and his neighbour responds with an equally deadpan “It’ll do”, you know precisely what they mean.
An unsavvy Martian visiting the restaurant behind this newly spruced village pub might interpret the exchange as meaning that the meat and potato pie was indifferent or barely satisfactory. What, in fact, the two friends were expressing in their spare, dry Pennine way was joy, praise, wonderment and something approaching religious ecstasy.
Shepley, it must be said, is already known for pies, so the locals know what they are talking about. Those from its Co-op are among the best in Yorkshire – and therefore everywhere – and a row of wall-mounted certificates from various pie-worshipping organisations only bolsters that view. Sometimes the butcher puts out a few high-bake specimens whose deep gold hot-water crust is slightly scorched. These are the pick, where the crispness of the pastry points up the juiciness of the savoury, peppery meat. It was shrewd, then, of chef-proprietor Darren Milner to head his main courses at the Farmer’s Boy with a meat and potato pie. There are plenty of other things on the menu at this pleasing sage and pine bistro, among them rack of lamb with potato and cauliflower dauphinoise, lemon and herb chicken with roast garlic and thyme jus, duck confit with puy lentils and, in every sense a blast from the past, Lobster thermidor.
But the wise money must be on the pie becoming the signature dish. Two reasons: it looks terrific with its crimped golden shortcrust through which a pot bird’s beak pokes to support the pastry and exhaust the steam. And it tastes lovely.
There’s nothing more elaborate to it than fine, well-trimmed meat, tender potatoes and rich, mahogany gravy. Any temptation to ponce up this dish with alien ingredients or seasonings has been resisted.
It arrives with a little white pot of mushy peas, one of crisp, pickled red cabbage and one of brown sauce and that’s it: honest Yorkshire food that our great-great grandparents would have recognised and applauded.
That said, Milner is no stranger to classic, crowd-pleasing fare. He ran the kitchens for many years at the Three Acres Inn and Restaurant at Shelley before leaving to open this, his first enterprise, two weeks ago.
His partner, Rebecca Maffin, runs the front of house in the converted-barn restaurant with cheerfulness, though there’s scope for refinement in the service. The young waitress on the evening we called seemed unduly apprehensive and the pace rarely exceeded steady. The neighbourhood clearly had wind of new arrivals in their midst, for the place was stuffed with locals, with much hailing and hand-shaking among tables as friends recognised each other across the room.
The spontaneous jollity lit the atmosphere nicely, although the piped music tended to have the reverse effect. Thrashing rock guitars followed by Bob Dylan’s weedy, needy whingeing is a heavy burden to place on diners. Even the lobsters were running for the boiling water.
Disregarding that, and the terrible racket made by ringtone phones on the bar, this is an admirable start to a new venture from an accomplished professional. It’s a neat idea, for example, to greet diners almost at once with a large white plate containing warm ciabatta, butter, herbed olives and a silver spoon of smoked salmon with caviare. Starters also underline the kitchen’s leanings towards comfort food. How else to explain bruschette of goat’s cheese with caramelised onions and roast peppers; open ravioli of smoked haddock and baby spinach with an egg; French onion soup with Gruyere crouton or rare-breed belly pork and black pudding salad with honey and mustard dressing? The costliest among this repertoire is parfait of foie gras and chicken liver on toasted brioche with onion jam, although the £7.95 tag is partly explained by the accompanying shot glass of “2003 Sauternes”.
It would be good to know the identity of the wine, but it’s a fair partner to a high-class parfait of long flavour, impressive texture and handsome presentation. There’s confidence, too, about the composition of the bruschette – excellent, tangy cheese, sweet onions – and to the Thai salmon cakes. Every chef with a pulse, but not necessarily any experience of the east, programmes them, and many stumble over the coating, the filling, the spicing or the frying. Here all four speak of a kitchen of high ideas and ability. It would be good to see a simple fish dish among the main courses beyond the beer-battered haddock, but these are early days and assuredness touches almost everything else from the pink lamb to the melting duck confit with its lentils and sausage, evocative of France.
And so back to the pie and the round-faced man on the next table who, confirming his distaste for reckless overstatement, declares that “it’s not small”. The kitchen, it seems, was unable to find a suitable single-portion dish, so for the moment the pies are sent out in earthenware vessels the size of a hearth rug. Desperate Dan after a 10-day fast would struggle to finish one.
Puddings include a fine warm tart made from the Italian lemon liqueur, Limoncello, with lemon ice cream and raspberries; a sticky toffee pudding whose treacle notes find a dark echo in the prune and Armagnac ice cream; and a croissant and whisky butter pudding with vanilla bean ice cream. Some debut from this restaurant team. In short, it’ll do.
The Farmer’s Boy, Marsh Lane, Shepley, Huddersfield HD8 8AP. 01484 605355. Open seven days, lunch and dinner (Saturday lunch, soup and sandwiches). Three course diner for two with wine: About £57. Car park. Hand-pumped beers include Tetley’s.
From the Yorkshire Post dated 12 September 2007.