1884 Dock Street Kitchen, Hull, restaurant review
'You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it, Charley.” These heart-rending lines are spoken by Terry, the faded prizefighter who threw away his one shot at the big time by taking a dive, in On the Waterfront. They hung in the air as we walked towards 1884 Dock Street Kitchen, a hugely ambitious restaurant on Hull’s marina, as a poignant reminder that dreams of greatness can end in tears in places such as this.
How I coulda imagined that an anguished cri de coeur in a 1954 movie about trade-union brutality in New Jersey might be relevant to a restaurant perched on the Humber in 2014 is a question best devolved to my crack team of psychotherapists. All that need be recorded here is that any concerns about what will become known as “1884” (the year the building was erected as a ropery) were quickly allayed.
Whether it strictly deserves the title accorded to it last November as the best restaurant in Yorkshire – a culinary powerhouse among counties – is debatable. But speaking as a world authority on Hull, on the strength of a recent 36-hour visit with Alexei Sayle to explore its anointment as UK City of Culture for 2017, I can confirm that 1884 fully deserves its current status as Humberside’s destination joint du jour.
This self-confidently theatrical restaurant makes an immediate statement of intent. On arrival, we were bedazzled by the buzz, the high-ceilinged grandeur, and the slickness of a front-of-house operation headed by a maître d’ in a lavishly lapelled Edwardian boating jacket. “I do hope we’re not keeping you from Henley?” I asked. “I’m so glad you noticed the connection,” he said of this nautical garment. “Most people think I’ve just left Hogwarts.”
Call it wizardry, feng shui or whatever, some rooms just feel right, and this vast dining area is one of those. I read on the website, which takes enough liberties with the language to hint at the hand of local hero Lord Prescott, that it was inspired by New York’s Meatpacking District. This you would not guess from the sepia prints of Victorian dock workers, the rich wood panelling or the faddishly spindly chandeliers. The wines are displayed in gigantic glass showcases (the list is broad and excellent, with decent bottles available for £16), and it feels less New Yorky than a hybrid of the grand all-day brasserie and a neo-gentleman’s club. It clearly works. Radiating a distinct talk-of-the-town swagger, 1884 was rammed this Friday night with Humberside’s young and gilded.
Hullite chef-owner James Allcock, an alumnus of Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing, makes much on the website of his devotion to fresh ingredients. “The Chef/Patron allows his imagination of dishes to be depicted,” it reveals, “by what is being delivered to him that day. This unique way of setting his menu allows foodies to have a new experience every time they come through the doors…”
We shall pass lightly over the application of “unique” to what is in fact a fairly widespread practice, because a chap who can cook like this one, at his best, deserves some linguistic licence. After a gorgeous amuse-bouche of tomato and pesto soup, I kicked off with crispy lamb sweetbreads with smoked bacon, black trumpet mushrooms and black truffle, with a leaf salad in a fine mustardy dressing. A medley of such opinionated ingredients that might have been overpowering in less-delicate hands was rendered gloriously gentle and coherent. The sweetbreads, from the à la carte menu, earned jealous glances from those on the set menu who began with a less-generous serving of “Jody Scheckter’s buffalo mozzarella”. The 1979 Formula One world champion from South Africa is now a dairy farmer in Hampshire (you have to maintain those adrenalin surges somehow), but this cheese found itself at the back of the grid. “Not so creamy, and very forgettable,” was the un-Murray Walkerish commentary there.
The main courses replicated the starters by veering between the marvellous and the “meh”. North Sea fish pie, with smoked salmon salad, was as vapid and watery as the mozzarella, while veal osso buco (from the set) with risotto Milanese seemed better suited to showing off the chef’s range than lingering in the memory. On the other hand, the regal richness of fallow deer, with a wild mushroom vol-au-vent and glorious smoked pancetta (Allcock has real flair for the cute flourish) was nicely balanced by a light, sharp celeriac purée, while a fillet steak with a blue cheese salad and fat chips cooked in beef dripping was “as good as I can recall. Superb meat, perfectly cooked.” All the puddings were great in the hypercalorific style, particularly a treacle tart with “Stamfrey Farm organic clotted cream”.
The obsession with giving shout-outs to suppliers (as if anyone gets anxiety dreams about the provenance of their cream) was one of several voguish irritants. Square plates may be de rigueur among the meatpackers of New York but they have no business in Yorkshire, while a clutch of purple helium-filled balloons at a nearby table blurred the line between the theatrical and the childish. Even so, neither they nor the odd misstep in the kitchen took the gloss off an engaging, unusually exciting restaurant that does have class, is a contender, and will challenge for major titles from its waterfront berth for a long time to come.
Humber Dock Street, Hull, East Yorkshire HU1 1TB, 01482 222260;1884dockstreetkitchen.co.uk.Three courses à la carte with wine, about £60 per head; three-course set menu: £22