It seemed appropriate that shortly before eating at Ox Club, I’d been to the cinema to see the the Jungle Book remake. What was intended as an hour and a half of listening to Idris Elba impersonate a tiger (and reassessing my position on the Human Sexuality Spectrum accordingly) turned out to be a parable about the responsibility that comes with harnessing fire.
Handled with a deftness of touch, fire and its many applications is what separates us from the rest of the animals. Combined with a bit of ingenuity it’s helped provide us with hot water, the internal combustion engine, and toasted marshmallows. In the clumsy mitts of those who doesn’t understand or respect it properly, the results can be disastrous; resulting in forest fires, singed eyebrows, and sausages half-cooked on a disposable barbecue.
Luckily, the chefs at Ox Club know what they’re doing when it comes to fire.
Their instrument is an imported, custom-made 9ft GrillWorks grill, which serves as the main focal point of their open kitchen – all solid steel and covered in cogs and hand-cranks and adjustable grill shelves, it’s a formidable bit of equipment that wouldn’t look out of place steampunk torture chamber. We sit next to the kitchen and observe a steady flow of produce going on and coming off, almost everything on the menu is given a bit of one-on-one time with it, taking on flavour from the flames or intense heat from the coals.
There’s a constant stream of whole cauliflower-heads on there, which go on to become Ox Club’s “must order” dish. A wedge of cauliflower is an unlikely star dish for a grill restaurant that boasts produce from some of the best butchers in Yorkshire (most of the produce comes from R&J in Ripon, with speciality cuts like Cote de Boeuf, Wing Rib, and everything at their Sunday Chop Nights supplied by Swaledale), but it’s the one that’s resonated with customers the most.
Any memories of sulphuric florets on your Nan’s Sunday roast, boiled until barely holding their shape are banished, as the charred, smokey flavour from the grill is imparted from root to tip. It’s smothered in a piquant romesco sauce, made with red peppers that haven’t so much been kissed by the flames, but given a full-on, open-mouthed, school disco snog.
And that’s just one of the side dishes. The menu has gone for a modular format – small plate starters (£3-6), larger portion “mains” (£8-12), and sides (£2-4) so you can choose your own adventure. Small plates tend to be one hero ingredient complemented, but not overshadowed by a couple of garnishes. A chunk of pink grapefruit and a pinch of coriander seeds add pep and depth to the coal-roasted Orkney scallops – they’re the sexiest thing to occupy a half-shell since mermaids started using them as bras.
A ball of Burrata arrives at the table with the threatening tensile property of an over-filled water-balloon. I’m weary that paper-thin shavings of fennel on top could make the thing explode at any moment – they don’t, but when we do the honours an unrelentingly creamy mixture of young mozzarella and cream oozes out. That fennel helps to liven it a bit, but the part that we fight over the most is the smoked mozzarella, all thick-skinned, murky and atmospheric from time spent in the Big Green Egg – a dustbin-sized ceramic contraption that imbues anything sealed inside with the deepest smoke.
Ox Cheek from the wood grill is a dish that I tried during the soft-launch back in December – back then it was good, but not fully realised. A few months down the line and they’ve absolutely nailed it – cooked slowly to give the ripples of fat chance to melt and self-baste, it surrenders under the slightest persuasion, as if it knows some juicy gossip it can’t wait to share with you. It’s piled high on a rich pool of tender flageolet beans, and topped with a bacon jam brimming with flavours of brown sugar and warm spice, and glimmering with caramelised fat. It elevates the ox cheek beyond the one-note, richness from the cut that can sometimes smother your palate, making it indistinguishable from tinned corned beef.
Pairing simple ingredients for exponential benefits is one of the things Ox Club does best – capillary-like florets of broccoli passively inhale smoke as they cook, and sturdy cubes of Mrs Bells Blue cheese gently render, coating them in a lanolin-scented fat, for example – so it’s disappointing that the anchovy and chilli flavours accompanying Hispi are so benevolent. Sequinned with glimmers of intense saltiness and heat, it could’ve been a contender to that Cauliflower dish. As it is, though, it’s just a perfectly fine buttered cabbage.
Their Flat Iron steak – seared, rested and sliced thin to show off a magnificent geode-like ombre from outer char to hot-pink centre – comes with bearnaise and a zippy, menthol, salsa verde. This was was the dish that sparked the Ox Club fuse when it began life as a street food operation around 12 months ago. That flame – fanned by the aspiration of chef-proprietor Ben Davy’s and a very talented kitchen – now fuels that custom-made, nine-foot, imported GrillWorks grill. Not bad going in a year.
You can still order the Flat Iron the original Ox Club way. They’ll box it up for you with a portion of home fries and ferry it across to the beer hall or up to one of Headrow House’s roof terraces. I won’t attempt dissuade you from doing this as it’s a brilliant bit of casual dining. Leeds had plenty of brilliant casual dining opportunities already, though.
That, and very good cauliflower.
Ox Club Review, Thom Archer, May 2016