This Friday sees the launch of Northern Monk Refectory’s new kitchen, which, after an extended residency by Grub & Grog Shop followed by an interim pop-up by Edward St Bakery, is being taken under the wing of an executive chef for the first time. Earlier this week Taste of Leeds was invited to The Old Flax Store that houses Northern Monk HQ for a special preview of what’s in store.
We were greeted by a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar faces, among the familiar were Anja, the recently-instated GM of the Old Flax Store, Russel, the founder and owner of Northern Monk, and his dog Archie. I managed to have a word with him (Russell, not Archie) about the renovation work causing the Refectory to be closed to the public this week - nothing major, just a few minor touches and spruces to create more cohesion between the brewery, tap room, and event space upstairs.
Even before the refurbs are complete they’re doing wonders for cohesion; causing us to forego the main entrance and be ushered in through the ground floor brewery, where head brewer Brian is waiting for us with a taster of the new “822” Double IPA, straight from the tank.
An uncharacteristically warm June evening might not sound like the best time to showcase a Double IPA - this one clocking in at 8.7%, with rich caramelly-orange flavours and a sticky mouthfeel you associate with the style - but if there’s a “bad” time to try a new Northern Monk beer, I’m yet to find it.
Getting an inside view of the brewery meant we were able to pick up on a few other things that have escaped my attention when nosing through the windows - particularly the fact they’re consecutively brewing in 11 tanks now (or it might have been 12. The tanks are labelled in Roman numerals, and despite Final Fantasy’s best efforts I never did get the hang of them...), as well as running their own canning facility, and getting up to some barrel-aging, which I imagine we’ll see the results of this Winter.
Upstairs looks reassuringly similar - communal tables are arranged in a square, spruced with...literal spruces and rustic touches like candles in jars, brown paper bags of cutlery and so on. It’s worlds away from the brewery’s stainless steel chic. It’s here we get our first introduction to the new kitchen’s output, on a neat, flash-card type menu detailing the six-course taster.
Trout, cucumber and sea herbs, it starts lightly enough. Venison tartare with rye bread (above). Not only has clear attention been paid to seasonality and provenance of ingredients (the Venison is sourced from a Yorkshire Wildlife Park) but also in the form they assume between sourcing and reaching the table; different types of cucumber are pickled, in-house rye bread thins serve as upmarket nachos for scooping up the tartare and quails egg-yolk on top. Broad beans are served in waffle form, topped with pea puree and smoked goats cheese. It’s paired with the rarely-beaten Northern Monk Mocha Porter - all of the courses are paired, there’s some of that cohesion Russell mentioned.
Every dish comes in “small plates to share” format - this is 2016, after all - but two dishes are distinguishable as “mains”: cod with an earthy pistachio butter and spring onions (photo above), and duck breast with carrot puree and pickled fennel (photo below). The dessert combines good local produce in macerated strawberries and elderflower yoghurt, a little tag team effort in the form of Strawberry and Black Pepper Ice Cream from local producer Northern Bloc, a bit of that “Oooh, aaah!” playfulness in a tempura’d stalk of elderberries, and another perfect beer pairing - this time a Neapolitan Ice Cream Pale brewed with fresh strawberries, vanilla, and a chocolate syrup from York Cocoa House (It was brewed as a Leeds Indie Food experiment, but mercifully they’re making and canning it as a seasonal special.)
The man behind the menu is Gavin Jackson, an 18-year kitchen veteran whose training saw him go around London from Canary Wharf to Bethnal Green to 10 Downing Street, as well as Northern kitchens like The Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey, and Cona in Bradford. In his own words: “It feels good to have found a venue that reflects how I feel about food... Northern Monk's ethos of taking tradition and evolving it into something new perfectly matches the food I want to create.”
As well as creating a small plates menu which changes seasonally and utilises more underused British produce, Gavin’s skills will also be employed in their brunch menu. Without giving too much away, Anja told us “when we were recruiting for the new head chef we went to various people’s houses and got them to cook for us - when we went to Gavin’s he cooked us the most amazing brunch, we instantly looked at each other and thought ‘this is our guy’”
As a brewery, Northern Monk’s mantra is “the evolution of tradition”, taking well-established recipes and techniques and adapting them for modern tastes and audiences.This “rebirth” of the refectory - the new kitchen, the slick events space more sure of its purpose, the upcoming Refectory Gardens hosting regular events - positions it away from being just “upstairs in the brewery” and into being a living, breathing HQ and integral part of the Northern Monk experience. It’s exciting to see that they’re applying their ethos to the refectory and the business as a whole, and imagine how they might evolve next.
(Photo Credit: Tom Joy)