With the opening of Robatary, Wakefield’s reputation for stylish new restaurants goes up another notch

A stylish interior creates atmosphere

In January 2018, I was asked to review Robatary, then Wakefield’s newest restaurant, on behalf of TopicUK magazine. Here’s what I wrote at the time (and I have been back several times since!).

You may already be familiar with 25-27 Northgate in Wakefield. For many years the premises operated as the popular, if unassuming, Qubana Restaurant and Grill – but the building fell quiet when Qubana picked up its skirts and moved across town to the spacious former Barclays Bank building at the end of Wood Street just over a year ago.

Since then, the Northgate premises have lain empty and were even boarded up for a while as work started on a major refurbishment project. The only clue to what was happening was the mysterious word ‘Robatary’ etched across the front. The business is still owned by Jenny Thompson and Matthew Burton, who also own the new Qubana, but they needed a different brand for their ‘old’ restaurant, and Wakefield’s bon vivants waited with breath abated to see what would emerge.  

Finally, the shuttering was removed and all was revealed. Just a week before Christmas 2017, the new place opened its doors to the paying public. And that word ‘Robatary’? It turns out to be the name of the restaurant!

The word actually has a Japanese origin (although that is the only connection the restaurant has with that country – the food is British, albeit with a twist). Apparently, a robata is a sort of charcoal grill used to prepare food in Japan. Robatayaki is a form of cooking in which food is cooked over hot charcoal, rather like a barbecue but, in the case, indoors. The charred taste that the hot coals infuse into the food, be it meat, fish or vegetables, brings the flavours to life.

Keen as ever to sample something new, I booked a table for two and my partner and I went along to see what it was like.

From the moment you step inside, it’s obvious that everything has changed! In fact, the only carry-over from the old Qubana is manager Gareth Quinn whose task it was to look after us as we sampled the food and I spoke to the customers and generally wandered around the place with my camera aloft.

Gareth brought us menus and took our orders. For a Tuesday evening, the restaurant was nicely busy, despite it being a very wintry night. (Honestly it was! Snow was falling outside as we arrived and not even in Wakefield were people taking advantage of the outdoor seating!), Seating inside is a mix of open plan and private booths (we had a booth, giving us a slightly raised vantage point to see what was going on) and, when the weather turns warmer, the glass doors facing onto the street can be opened up in the European manner.

One thing that Jenny and Matthew do well is style. Visitors to the new Qubana have been very impressed with what has been achieved with the old bank but here at Robatary, the more modern building needed something contemporary. There’s a mix of textures, wood, (faux) concrete – one wall reminded me of the Hepworth!, ceramic tiles, glass, chrome, and steel, giving off a slightly industrial vibe, but reined back and softened with velvet and leather upholstery and fluffy cushions. Carefully chosen background music adds a touch of class and even a slightly sultry mood.

But of course, we were there to sample the food, not just ogle the soft furnishings. The menu was still slightly experimental at the time of our visit and was being updated after the pre-Christmas opening. The intention is that the menu, devised by executive chef Craig England, will follow the seasons and will be updated throughout the year.

To begin your meal, you can select from a number of nibbles, breads and charcuterie dishes or go straight to the starters. Although a ‘grill’, the restaurant caters well for vegetarians. The main courses are listed under three headings – Land, Sea and Earth (for which read meat, fish and vegetable) – and there’s a fourth section offering a variety of steaks. All can be ordered with side dishes and sauces.  There’s a handful of desserts (or ‘treats’ as they are listed) from which to select to finish off your meal.  Prices are £5 – £7.50 for starters (nibbles range from £3 to £4.50), and mains run from £12 to £17 – but be prepared to pay more for a steak! Sides and accompaniments are charged extra.  Desserts are all priced at £5.

As regular readers would expect, my partner and I opted for the vegetarian dishes. For starters, I had the grilled spiced courgette skewers (the spiciness dialled right down which, for me, was good) while my partner had the goat’s curd (which looks and tasted better than it perhaps sounds!). These were both light and beautifully presented, setting us up well for the main courses: wood-roasted aubergine in my case and homemade gnocchi for my partner. For desserts (sorry, treats), we had Key lime tart, served with clotted cream, (me) and wood-roasted rhubarb, served with ice cream. These were served ‘deconstructed’ and again very artistically arranged. The cost of our meal would come in at a little over £20 per person plus drinks, which is very reasonable.

So, what did we think? Well, in terms of style, the friendliness of the service, food quality and overall presentation, Robatary comes out very well indeed; it will certainly give some of the local competition a run for their money. And that wasn’t just our verdict. Chatting to some of the other customers, they also thought very highly of the establishment.

The restaurant is conveniently located and is at the heart of the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. It is open daily from 12 noon (until late) and small groups can be catered for but, as Gareth pointed out, the restaurant is really designed to provide for a more intimate dining experience.

Gareth also told me that his ambition is to make Robatary the best restaurant in Wakefield. On the basis of our evening there, he’s well on the way to achieving that goal.

My partner and I dined as guests of Robatary.

Robatary, 25-27 Northgate, Wakefield, WF1 3BJ. Tel: 01924 211904.

Website: www.robatary.co.uk

My Perfect Restaurant

I’ve been doing restaurant reviews for Wakefield’s business-to-business magazine TopicUK since 2013. In consequence, I’m often asked “What is your favourite restaurant?”

Well, if truth be told, there are several restaurants in the city that I’m rather fond of so it might be more tactful to explain what I look for when choosing somewhere to eat, whether dining in Wakefield – or further afield!

Service with a smile

I want to feel welcomed when I visit a restaurant and, if I’ve been there before, I want to be recognised for being a ‘repeat’ customer. I like to be shown to a good table, preferably with a view, and to exchange a few words of conversation with the proprietor and staff. I want to feel that they care about my experience of eating in their restaurant.

Food quality

I suppose I’m looking for something that I wouldn’t necessarily have at home; so something a little bit out of the ordinary, whether it be the ingredients or the way they are combined – the wow factor if you like – gets the establishment extra points. Having said that, some of the most enjoyable meals I’ve eaten have been the most simple – a plate of fresh pasta, cooked to perfection, can just as easily ‘cut the mustard’. There’s no need for a huge menu – but as a vegetarian, I do expect to see more than one veggie option on there, otherwise the only choice I have is whether to eat there or not.

Food quantity

I’m not a fan of gargantuan portions. Some restaurants seem to want to compete with their American cousins, piling food onto the plate, perhaps in the belief that customers associate value for money with sheer quantity! Eating a meal should not be a test of stamina and endurance. I also suspect that it’s actually bad for business: after all, if you’ve worked your way through a huge main course, who has room for pudding?

Presentation

Food needs to look good on the plate – and yes, when I say plate I mean plate. I’m not into gimmicks, thank you: you can keep your slates, shovels, cloth caps, glass jars, and so on. I like to eat off a clean plate with clean cutlery. Call me old fashioned but I do have my standards! Oh, and I do like a nice bit of napery. Clean white linen can really set off a table. But if there’s no tablecloth, one of my pet hates is to be shown to a table that has just been wiped down – still damp and usually streaky!

Of course, there are other factors to consider: cost, ambience, background music (or lack thereof), furnishings and décor, and so on, but, at the end of the day, what really makes for an enjoyable and memorable meal is the choice of table companions. Eating out with friends and family should be a social and sociable occasion. Conversation and repartee should flow freely (a little alcohol helps!) but that, of course, is something over which the restaurant has little control!

(First published in TopicUK for Wakefield in November 2017)

One of my favourite restaurants afloat: the Verandah Restaurant aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

Havana a good time at Qubana! Sampling the Cuban delights of Wakefield’s newest restaurant

I’m going to begin this review, if you’ll indulge me, with a short history lesson.

The banking firm of Leatham, Tew and Co was originally established in Doncaster and Pontefract in 1801. In 1809, the bank acquired premises in Wakefield when it took over the failing Wakefield firm of Ingram, Kennett and Ingram and opened a branch on the corner of Wood Street and Silver Street.

In 1880, the bank commissioned the building of imposing new premises, designed for them by Leeds architects J Neill and Son. This new building, still on the Wood Street site, opened to customers in 1881. It’s actually two buildings: look at the Wood Street elevation and you’ll notice the main banking hall to the left and then a smaller, ‘mini-me’ version to the right. This smaller building was designed as residential accommodation for the bank manager! (You’ll also notice the dates 1809 and 1881 inscribed above the windows.)

Leatham, Tew and Co continued in existence as an independent bank until their merger with Barclays Bank in 1906. The premises on the corner of Wood Street remained in use as a bank until Barclays moved to Trinity Walk in 2011, ending a banking tradition on the site that had endured for over two centuries.

When one of the city’s grand old buildings falls empty, one can only wonder what fate will befall it. When a business as important as a major bank moves out, there is inevitably a knock-on impact for neighbouring properties, and I suspect that many businesses in and around the Wood Street area noticed the drop in footfall when Barclays moved away. So it was with some considerable relief that we saw plans being submitted last year to bring this landmark building back into use as a restaurant (with flats above) and to help breathe new life into the street.

Those of you who dine out in Wakefield may already be familiar with Qubana, a restaurant that has traded with considerable success from its Northgate premises for several years now. The re-location to Wood Street has enabled owner Matthew Burton and his partner Jenny Thompson to develop their ideas to create a smart and very stylish bar and restaurant that is sure to be a major draw for anyone looking for a lively and glamorous evening out in the city.

As the photographs show, having bought the building, the new owners have gone to considerable lengths and not inconsiderable expense (around £1M) to renovate the interior of the former banking hall. High ceilings and a mix of new and retained plasterwork, exposed brickwork, chandeliers, comfortable seating, some of it in high-backed booths, and lots and lots of pictures add touches of elegance while a spacious bar area and open kitchen give the place a vibrant atmosphere. There’s also a new rear entrance onto George and Crown Yard and an open air roof-top terrace on the first floor, La Terraza, with its own bar.

The food is a mix of Cuban/South American and European tapas – the Qubana website says they take ‘the sensual Latin flair of Cuba and combine it with the hearty, honest flavours of Spain to create dishes that perfectly fuse these two cultures’. It also says that all their ingredients are sourced as locally as possible before being treated ‘with all the know-how of a Catalonian’!

I can certainly vouch for the quality of the food. When we visited the restaurant in March 2017, my two dining companions and I enjoyed a mix of tapas and main course dishes – I’m told that the chicken Jambalaya with King Prawns was especially good. As regular readers would expect, I sampled a selection of the vegetarian tapas and found that four or five dishes between two of us was more than adequate, allowing plenty of room for dessert (and just as well I did – the Turron Cheesecake I ordered was light but very filling!). Tapas dishes start at just £3.50 while main course dishes range from £12 to £17 – a little more if you want one of the grilled steaks. I was the designated driver for the evening so contented myself with a soft drink but large glasses of white and rosé wine were consumed by my fellow diners. Maybe next time I’ll get to try something more exotic from the extensive drinks menu which includes draught and bottled beers, wines, cocktails, gins, rums and, of course, Daiquiris and Mojitos.

Presentation and service could not be faulted. Although we were there on a Tuesday evening, perhaps one of the quieter nights in Wakefield, the restaurant was busy with a steady stream of customers and the staff were kept fully occupied. (I’m told that there are some 40 staff currently employed by the restaurant under the overall managership of Gareth Quinn and more are being recruited. I didn’t get to meet Gareth but assistant managers Craig Cizic and Faye Capitano made sure that my party and I were looked after.)

The restaurant opens at 10.00 am on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when a ‘brunch’ menu of light snacks is available until 12 noon when the lunchtime menu (served from 12 until 5) takes over, offering a mix of sandwiches, wraps and tapas dishes. On other days, Monday to Thursday, the restaurant opens at noon. It stays open until 10 pm except for Fridays and Saturdays when it is open until 11 pm.

You can see the full menus on the website. Watch out for special live music nights and, if you are a party of up to 10 looking for something special, ask about the The Vault, a private dining room which, as its name suggests, is inside the former bank’s vault.

Whatever time you visit, if my evening there is anything to go by, you’ll be sure to be Havana good time at Qubana!

Qubana, 1-3 Wood Street, Wakefield, WF1 2EL

Website: www.qubana.co.uk

José’s Tapas Restaurant – “where friends meet to eat”

This article first appeared in the March 2017 edition of the Wakefield magazine TopicUK. Please check the restaurant’s website for updated details of menus, prices, opening hours, etc.

There are some obvious benefits to being a restaurant reviewer. That I get to try out different restaurants and taste all kinds of delectable food goes without saying, of course, but, in what is now nearly four years since I started writing these reviews for TopicUK, I have also had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people, from restaurant proprietors and managers, to the chefs and waiters without whom no restaurant could succeed.

In my reviews, I often make reference to how cosmopolitan Wakefield has become over recent years with many and varied culinary delights from around the world being available and yet, somehow, I haven’t before managed to fit in a review of a Spanish restaurant. That is an omission I can now correct following a recent visit to José’s Tapas Restaurant.

Now, regular restaurant goers in Wakefield may well have met the proprietors, husband and wife José and Sofia Escribano before – they used to have a restaurant at Newmillerdam and José has worked in a number of restaurants, both in the city and in Leeds, including Rinaldi’s and Bella Roma, before opening this newest venture in Cross Street, Wakefield. As his name suggests, José hails from Spain where his home city was Madrid, although he has been in the UK now for 37 years. Sofia meanwhile, was born in Leeds but to an Italian mother and Hungarian father.

On the night we visited, Sofia was front of house, supported by waiters Maria and Franklin. While Sofia sorted out our orders, José took charge in the kitchen with Paco, the second chef, helping to prepare meals for a steady stream of customers throughout the evening. Sofia was keen to impress that the restaurant, although bearing José’s name above the door was very much a family affair. Their son, Richard, had worked up the business plan and even done some of the fitting out while other members of their family – daughters Maria and Elizabeth and son Jonathan, along with daughter-in-law Liz – all helped out. Sofia even pointed to the table cloths and said that her mother had helped with the stitching and hemming. As well as family involvement, José and Sofia have a team of six staff to call on.

As the name suggests, this is the place to come for tapas. The last time I dined there, it had been with around 30 members of the Wakefield Civic Society Dining Club on an evening when we had taken over the whole restaurant and Sofia and José had organised a sampling menu where members were invited to try out lots of tapas dishes – and there really is a good mix to choose from, with over 20 different tapas listed on the menu, including ones with chicken, chorizo, ham, prawns and anchovies.

For the purpose of this review, there were just two of us but, as both my partner and I are vegetarian, we dispensed with the menu and left it to Sofia to make recommendations for us. She did explain that the secret with tapas was not to order too many dishes – she recommended that around five or six sharing tapas dishes would probably work for two people – there was always the option of ordering more later on, of course, if appetites allowed. You can see the menu on their website – and it’s worth taking a look beforehand.

Our meal started with pitted marinated olives (José marinates his own olives so that they are not too salty), bread and cheese, mushrooms in garlic and olive oil, tortilla (Spanish omelette – very light and fluffy!), tomatoes and asparagus, and some slightly spicy potatoes (when I say spicy, it was nothing we couldn’t handle!). There was also a basket of bread with butter to accompany.

For our main courses, José, knowing that we were vegetarian as I had mentioned this to him when I booked our table, had prepared a butternut squash for us, served with lightly roasted tomatoes and sauce. This was followed by a lovely vegetable paella for us to share.

At this point, I was ready for a lie down – the food was simple but delicious and each dish visually and aromatically appealing but there comes a time when the belt needs to be undone a notch. It was just then that Sofia asked me if we would like dessert..….at first, we declined, but our will was weak and before we knew it we found ourselves eating a creamy and fruity lemon cheesecake, although we did have just the one between us: there are limits!

Since opening, the restaurant has featured regularly at the top of the TripAdvisor customer reviews for Wakefield and has proved very popular with the Wakefield public. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch from 12 noon until 2 pm and then again in the evening from 5.30 pm until 9.30 pm, the restaurant can also be booked for private parties on Sundays and Mondays. Whenever you are planning your visit, it’s always advisable to book to avoid disappointment, especially at busy times such as Friday and Saturday evenings, and do remember to pass on details of any special dietary requirements at the time of booking. The restaurant can serve vegetarian, vegan and gluten free dishes but it always helps to let them know in advance if you can.

We had a really enjoyable evening with José and Sofia and had plenty of time to chat with them between courses. It was clear that they are passionate about the food they serve and that they are really proud of what they and their family are doing. Their enthusiasm really does shine through!

But don’t just take my word for it: go in and see it for yourselves!

http://josestapasrestaurant.com/

9-11 Cross Street, Wakefield, WF1 3BW

Dining with the Quality – Taking Yorkshire to the House of Lords

This article first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the Wakefield magazine TopicUK.

As a restaurant reviewer, I’m always prepared to travel in search of that special meal and when the Yorkshire Society provided a rare opportunity to dine at the House of Lords back in February 2016, I needed little convincing. Here is my review of a rather unique evening.

Back in 2013, I took the opportunity to visit the Houses of Parliament, doing the full guided tour offered to members of the public. If you know that in my career as a Civil Servant I made the occasional visit to the building in my official capacity, this might sound surprising but the tour revealed parts of the building to me that I’d never seen before when there on business, so it was well worth the entry fee: the building simply oozes history with parts of it dating back to the eleventh century. The tour also proved fascinating for my partner whose ancestors include one of the stone masons, Timothy Peckett (born in Barnsley in 1819), who helped with the construction of what is the New Palace of Westminster after the fire of 1834 destroyed much of the former palace building. Timothy Peckett was recruited to work on the building because he had experience of working with the Yorkshire Stone from which the New Palace is built.

One thing that I never did when visiting with my work, was to have a meal there so when the Yorkshire Society announced that they would be holding a dinner at the House of Lords, I found it difficult to resist and purchased tickets for my partner and myself.

Now, my relationship with the Yorkshire Society is through Wakefield Civic Society as each organisation has reciprocal membership of the other. The Yorkshire Society is a not-for-profit membership organisation established in 1980 with the aim of encouraging businesses, charities and individuals, whether from Yorkshire or just based here, to join together in “promoting the county”.

My tickets duly arrived. Our official host for the evening would be Lord Kamlesh Kumar Patel of Bradford, OBE, one of the Yorkshire Society Vice Presidents, and we were to present ourselves at Black Rod’s Garden Entrance at the House of Lords for 7pm. Train tickets were ordered and a hotel was booked for the evening (talk about pushing the boat out!).

On the day, we travelled down to London and checked in to our hotel before setting out to do some sight-seeing. As luck would have it, by evening, the heavens had opened so we decided on a taxi – a tear-inducing extravagance in London!

It’s not every day that you have to go through airport-style security to gain admission to your dinner but the process was efficiently handled and we soon found ourselves in the Cholmondeley Room in the House of Lords rubbing shoulders with around 120 members and guests of the Yorkshire Society at a drinks reception. Many had travelled down from Yorkshire especially for the dinner (and it was good to count a few members of Wakefield Civic Society in their midst) but some had travelled from elsewhere, including some now resident in London. One particularly recognisable face was BBC Look North presenter, Harry Gration, another of the Yorkshire Society’s several Vice Presidents.

In due course, we were ushered into the Terrace Dining Room which gave commanding views across the River Thames. Seats were pre-allocated and we discovered that we would be in some very good company as we joined a table with Sir Rodney and Lady Walker (Sir Rodney is also a Vice President of the Yorkshire Society), Rod and Sheila Scholes (Rod is Treasurer of the Yorkshire Society), Wakefield business leader Margaret Wood MBE, as well as two people whom we got to know better over dinner – Karen Swainston and Caroline Pullich, both Yorkshire representatives of Barclays Bank.

Speeches were from Lord Patel, Sir David Wootton (the first Bradfordian to be Lord Mayor of London), businessman Ken Wootton (no relation but he and Sir David did both attend Bradford Grammar School), and Keith Madeley, MBE, chairman of the Yorkshire Society.

One of the mains reasons for the dinner was to mark the creation of a Yorkshire Society branch in London which will be chaired by Ken Wootton with Sir David Wootton taking on the role of President. Having a Yorkshire Society branch in London will not only provide a place of sanctuary for homesick Yorkshire folk but will also help to promote the interests of Yorkshire including its business and sporting achievements to a London audience, particularly to decision makers and influencers within government. As Lord Patel explained, if the Northern Powerhouse was to become a reality, there had to be a connection between the region and the Westminster village.

Now, and not forgetting my role here as a restaurant reviewer, I must turn my attention to the meal itself. This consisted of a three-course set meal starting with a double-baked cheese soufflé, followed by loin of venison with all the trimmings and then what was billed as a dark chocolate brûlée for dessert (it was closer to a chocolate mousse in reality – but still very enjoyable). Special diets were, of course, catered for and the vegetarians among us, me included, were presented with vegetable cannelloni. To finish, there was coffee and House of Lords truffles (the latter wrapped in little presentation boxes). Wine accompanied the meal and I’m pleased to report there was no stinting on the measures – which probably helped with the rather relaxed atmosphere and we were all in party mood as we left having had a truly marvellous evening in a splendid setting.

As we emerged into the late evening rain, my partner and I looked at each other and after some conferring, we agreed that we’d walk back to the hotel – no more expensive taxis for us. Well, we are from Yorkshire after all!

While dining at the House of Lords might require a specially organised event or a private invitation, you can enjoy a tour of Parliament and follow it with an afternoon tea on most Saturday afternoons throughout the year. See www.parliament.uk/afternoon-tea for more information.

Find out more about the Yorkshire Society at www.yorkshiresociety.org.uk or by emailing membership@yorkshiresociety.org.uk