You never forget your first Ox Club. It was back in 2015 when Headrow House (sister venue to Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen and more recently, Water Lane Boathouse) had just opened. Within its exposed brickwork walls, was a beer hall, cocktail bar, events space, two rooftops and a soon to open restaurant; Ox Club. To showcase what was to come, the aptly named, ‘Box Club’ opened on one of the rooftops and served hanger steak, twice cooked chips, béarnaise sauce, salsa verde and a sprinkling of leaves packed into, well, a cardboard box. I was instantly captivated. As soon as the restaurant officially opened, I used any opportunity I had to visit – and I didn’t even live in Leeds at the time. It wasn’t long before I was back for brunch (again and again) with one of my favourite dishes being the Korean fried chicken with fried wild rice, kimchi, pickled cucumber and a crispy fried egg – I should also mention that Box Club is, in fact, still a thing. This summer I checked out the Ox Club stall at Water Lane’s August Bank Holiday Leeds Feast and enjoyed Hereford Angus onglet with fluffy potatoes which were grilled on a plancha and then drizzled in chimichurri. It was heavenly and brought back memories of my first taste of Box Club two years ago. It was time to venture back to the restaurant.
I regularly visit Headrow House for pints of pilsner in ice cold steins, yet a visit to Ox Club deserves a special occasion – so when we had family visiting a month or so ago, it was the perfect time to book a table. On a cold December evening, Ox Club had a rather angelic glow from the outside and as we headed in and sat down, we were instantly greeted with smiles and it was coats and scarves off, wine ordered and time to engage in a good catch up around the table. One bottle of wine eventually turned into four and, “Oh, shall we get a starter each?” suddenly ended up being, let’s all get starters, main courses, desserts and a selection of various side dishes. I was back at Ox Club and we were going all out.
‘Let’s all get starters, main courses, desserts and a selection of various side dishes. I was back at Ox Club and we were going all out.’
I started on the chestnut, pickled walnut and egg ravioli, with smoked mushroom broth and sage. The dish screamed classic winter flavours and it was so comforting and inviting, I am not embarrassed to admit I might have possibly started humming, Nat King Cole’s, Chestnuts roasting on an open fire to myself, whilst eating. A smug looking plump raviolo, adorned with one singular sage leaf, sat bathing in the sweet and soothing broth. The soft bite of the walnut added texture and the umami taste of mushroom brought a moreish depth of flavour.
From one plate of comfort food to the next; the main course from the wood grill saw turbot on the bone, with smoked mash and truffle cream. Quite possibly three of my favourite things all on one plate. The fish had a desirable meatiness to it which was a match made in heaven with the silky soft smoked mash and the indulgent truffle cream on the side. I almost inhaled the smoked mash it was so smooth and buttery, before I then helped to hoover up the rest of the side dishes, which consisted of spinach with anchovy aioli, ymerdrys and pecorino, broccoli with black garlic, egg crème and black pudding, and chips with sea salt. In fact the whole oasis of main courses and side dishes disappeared from our plates very quickly, and I was almost tempted to ask for a second helping of smoked mash.
‘I almost inhaled the smoked mash it was so smooth and buttery, before I then helped to hoover up the rest of the side dishes.’
Hence, it was onwards to the third course; dessert. It was the first item on the menu which had caught my eye as soon as we sat down – the pistachio s’more with cardamom cookie, peach butter and raspberry. In fact, despite my infatuation with the smoked mash, this particular pudding had been lingering in the back of my mind throughout the entire meal and when we finally made the executive decision that we would all go for dessert (no sharing), I exhaled a sigh of relief. I was so excited for this combination of sweet, sharp, fruity and fragrant flavours and when the s’more actually arrived on a wooden stick that resembled a dainty twig, I was instantly taken back to many summers ago when I actually went to a Summer Camp in North Carolina with my friend who was American. Nothing beats roasting marshmallows over a campfire and then cushioning them between Hershey’s chocolate and a graham cracker. With this in mind, however, I felt slightly deflated by Ox Club’s version of what I hoped would be a caramelised, sticky, gooey concoction – especially with the fake wooden stick conjuring up the image that it had just been brought back from a roaring log fire. Instead, it tasted bland and lumpy but was immediately resurrected by the wonderful cookie, with the smattering of raspberry bringing a lovely lift to each bite.
The night was still young and so we headed over to riverside bar Stew & Oyster for some post-dinner gin and tonics. Sipping on my drink, I thought back to 2015 and my first taste of Box Club. Those early days which were only a mere taster for what was to come; Ox Club is now a much-loved, critically-acclaimed key figure in the Leeds food and drink scene. The restaurant and its ethos connects the dots between other independent businesses; whether it’s the kohlrabi chutney, coconut yoghurt, nigella seed and curry leaf scraps Vada Pav which they created for a Leeds Indie Food collaboration with Bundobust, or the venison on the menu provided by the Harewood Food and Drink Project and then cured by The Reliance, or the selection of wines from Latitude or even swapping their own venues for one night only when Belgrave’s own Patty Smith’s served up double aged-steak patties with maple glazed bacon, double American cheese and secret spice in a brioche bun, along with Szechuan fries with shredded duck, hoisin sauce, spring onion, white and black sesame seeds and crispy seaweed at Ox Club for Uptown Pattys. I think back to sitting on a cold, empty rooftop on a grey day, enjoying an amazing steak and chips with a beer and lamenting that I had moved away from Leeds just as its own food revolution was only just beginning.