El Gato Negro
Oldham Road, Ripponden, HX6 4DN
IT’S nearly five years since Simon Shaw brought authentic Spanish cuisine to a somewhat damp, cold and unsuspecting Calderdale village.
Back then, tapas bars in the North of England were as rare as vegetarian Spaniards, but the Yorkshire-born chef made a leap of faith.
El Gato Negro – a conversion of a stone-built pub in Ripponden – was an out-of-town restaurant, serving unfamiliar dishes in an unfamiliar way. Simon and his then business partner, Chris Williams, took a risk. And it paid off handsomely.
Today, El Gato Negro stands as one of the county’s most feted restaurants. It has won six awards and appears in the Good Food Guide. Most recently, Simon and his team appeared on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word, beating the Spanish-born owners of a tapas bar at their own game.
So, what is it that has secured the success of El Gato Negro when so many new restaurants fail within their first year in business?
The answers to these questions lie in the consistency of the dining experience.
We first ate as a family at El Gato Negro in 2006 when it had not long been open, having spied it on the way to our friend’s house in Ripponden.
It was a cold day, I recall, but we received a warm welcome. (Woe betide the restaurateur who neglects this most important front of house duty).
The menu was full of possibilities – including Spanish meats and cheeses, spicy chilli tiger prawns, classic meatballs in piquant tomato sauce, tiny cutlets of pork, unctuous Syrian lentils, crunchy Catalan bread (spread with salted crushed tomatoes), individual creamy tortillas, patatas bravas with aioli and much more.
It was, we all agreed, better Spanish food than we’ve ever had in Spain.
Since that time we have dined there often and have never had a bad meal or even a dish that didn’t live up to our expectations.
Twice in the last month we have graced its doors, sampling everything from all the aforementioned to succulent fillets of beef and hunks of roasted cod with braised salsify and tiny shimeji mushrooms – perfectly presented, seasoned and greed-quenching.
Five years on and El Gato Negro – not to be confused with the newly opened Huddersfield Italian Il Gatto Nero – remains true to its founding principles.
Simon, who moved from cheffing at Harvey Nichols in London to open a restaurant back in his native county, has always demanded the best, authentic ingredients from the membrillo (quince paste) to the chorizo. His food is well thought out but – a word of warning to the cash-strapped – not cheap. This is quality stuff with dishes from a couple of pounds for olives and roasted almonds to £10, £12 or more for elaborate meat-based delicacies.
Three dishes per head is generally sufficient but it’s temptingly easy to keep ordering more – and spending more.
All too often tapas bars believe the title gives them a licence to serve whatever they like as long as it’s in small dishes. Simon, who makes regular foraging trips to Spain, maintains a strong Iberian menu with, at times, a contemporary twist. This, he says, is what many of the best tapas bars in Spain are currently doing – giving tapas a modern presentation while not losing sight of authentic dishes. The last time we ate there, for example, we tried a dish of Yorkshire beetroot with goat’s curd – Spanish in its inspiration but using local ingredients. To me it typifies this restaurant. It was earthy, beautifully presented, moist, tasty and quite morish.
There are always surprises such as this to be found on the menu or the specials board.
The recent departure of Chris, who has gone back to London, means that Simon is now the sole owner and chef patron of El Gato Negro. However, the arrival of head chef Matthew Healy has allowed him to split his time between menu-planning, cooking and front-of-house, which he is enjoying immensely and, of course, is vital to maintaining the hard-won reputation of the restaurant.
I look forward to many more years of la buena comida Española.