Dining out is back in. Leeds’ oldest pub reopened its doors this week. Thomas Chalk and Cath Kane went out for pub grub.
Some establishments are blessed with great swathes of outdoor space that they’ve been able to adapt to lockdown and downpours; others haven’t had this option. Whitelock’s, and next-door sister pub the Turk’s Head, are somewhere in the middle, having a wide alleyway that can hold tables, many of which are covered to provide shelter from the current slightly unseasonable weather, but no doubt they are still pleased to have the extra capacity of being able to welcome drinkers and diners indoors. The décor is as traditional and cosy as we remembered, and we could sense the smiles of the staff through their face masks.
Whitelock’s menu sits firmly in the pub grub category (which is no bad thing), with meat-free takes on a few items. Think a fuss-free menu of bar snacks, burgers, fish and chips, sandwiches (Ploughman’s / maple-glazed ham / beer-battered fish fingers), beef and ale pie. Note to self: I need to go back and sample the courgette frites, the least ‘traditional’ item.
Cath started with beer-battered squid rings with aioli; this sauce was given a slight twist and a grey tinge with the addition of squid ink. This was cooked well – the batter was light, the squid wasn’t rubbery, and the aioli had the right kick of garlic.
For my starter, I went for a meat-free Scotch duck egg. Rather than trying to concoct a ‘meat-like’ substitute for the sausagemeat exterior, Whitelock’s encase the egg in summer squash, Fettle (the locally-produced white cheese that’s remarkably similar to feta) and mint. This combination worked exceptionally well, with the sweetness of the squash countered by the salty, acid tang of the cheese which wasn’t smoothly blended, giving more variety to each bite. Mint partners well with squash and with Fettle, bringing summery fragrance. The egg itself had the kind of fudgy yolk that allows you to eat it without it running down your arm while still retaining a luxuriant moistness. Personally, I didn’t need the sweet chilli sauce that came with it, but again the flavours are a good match to the other ingredients. I accompanied this with a bottle of Ilkley Brewery’s Virgin Mary, a pale ale with a 0.5% alcohol content – at risk of damning it with faint praise, it’s better than most low- and no-alcohol beers, without much of the curious sweetness than can sometimes blight them.
From the specials menu, Cath chose sea bass with celeriac puree, fondant potato and roasted fennel, finished with buttery spinach and a few capers. Like the squid, the fish was cooked perfectly, with deliciously crispy skin and firm, moist flesh. The vegetables brought further luxury (in part via butter) and the combination of flavours was balanced well.
For my main I ordered a halloumi burger. Of the five mains (or seven if you count the specials), two are meat-free: the halloumi, and vegan fish and chips made with banana blossom. Having scored a triumph with the vegetarian Scotch egg, could Whitelock’s do it again with the burger? Yes. Yes they could. When the burger arrived, the patty was close to an inch thick, encased in a crumbed ale glaze, and I worried that this might be a (plant-based-)ham-fisted attempt to swap out meat with halloumi – delicious when done right, which usually means thin and exposed to enough direct heat to go golden brown on the outside; but all too often rubbery and squeaky and aggressively over-salted when done wrong. To my delight, the halloumi had been blended with ricotta and seasonings to make a smooth filling which diluted the salt content and tackled the risk of teeth-squeaking texture, with the outer casing holding the whole affair together and providing crunch. The topping of smoked roasted peppers and red onion brought sweetness and acidity, and the skin-on chunky chips had been given long enough in the fryer to go brown and crispy (which should be a given, but I’ve had anaemic chips enough times over the years to know it’s not). Guest cask ale Zapato Brewery Doom porter washed things down nicely – like the food menu, the drink offering isn’t a dauntingly huge list, but has a nice variety with several local brews to the fore.
We had dessert – it would have been rude not to, though we decided to split one in recognition of the hearty portions of our mains. We had stem ginger brownie with caramel sauce and Northern Bloc’s ginger caramel ice cream. The brownie could perhaps have been a touch moister – it was more cakey than fudgy, but the sauce and ice cream shifted the balance well.
Leaving, we walked up Turk’s Head Yard past the covered tables, hunched against the rain, and were delighted to run into four friends whom we’ve not seen since before lockdown in March last year. Welcome back Whitelock’s, and welcome back Leeds.
Photography by Cath Kane.
(Editor’s Note: The proverbial little bird told me that Thomas was actually speechless when he first tasted Whitelock’s food for this review, because it is so good, so that’s a first for Leeds Living – a writer who is rendered word-less!)