Here at Telegraph Towers, we have a points system we use when we’re assessing potential candidates for review, much as the current or previous Home Secretary (this went to press on Friday) proposes to determine the immigration policy of our newly sovereign nation.
Black Iron in Leicester scored several pluses: it’s got a really cool, post-industrial-slash-Game-of-Thrones-y name! It majors in steaks and cakes! It’s in a Georgian house! In a park!
Against this one has to cite a couple of negatives, or potential negatives: it’s part of a hotel and conference suite; and the park it’s in is a normal, scruffy, edge-of-town park rather than a deeply rural, Jane Austen-type park. But on balance it seemed to be a definitive Yes, so off we went.
In fact we thought the park was rather lovely, filled on the Saturday we visited with happy dogs lolloping around, and people doing normal, scruffy, edge-of-town things: one of those mundane municipal spaces that’s somehow mysteriously illuminated by the hidden beauty – all too well hidden, half the time, even in Leicester – of life.
The house itself was thrumming with humanity: the restaurant was doing a gentle lunchtime trade when we arrived for a 2pm reservation; when we left about an hour and a half later, it was doing a slightly brisker teatime one. Over in the conference bit there was an Asian wedding reception in full spate all afternoon.
Children in suits hurtled around the glazed lobby area as we scuttled through an archway to the ground floor of the main house, where the maître d’ checks bookings and coats in the shadow of a dramatic stone staircase, and the restaurant occupies a grand, stately space across the front of the building, in what was once the entrance hall and two front parlours.
It’s been decorated in a smart, contemporary way, with the 18th-century mouldings set off by plush seating, modern lighting and a few old photographs (depicting, we imagined, the house’s former chatelaine, among other things). Jazzy retro crockery decorated with exotic fauna added some juice to this pleasing new-old cocktail.
We summoned the Steak Board – apart from fillet, rib-eye and sirloin, all the beef cuts are sold by weight – but my daughter wasn’t keen, requesting instead some scallops from the starters menu and an assortment of sides. (“Lots of people do that,” said the server.) The only “bespoke” cut that was even vaguely plausible for me alone was a 250g hunk of Chateaubriand, the tenderest bit of the tenderloin.
Lurking somewhere in the depths of the building, spoken of on the menu in hushed and reverential tones, is a charcoal-fired Bertha oven. This delivers the required deliciousness – my steak was Hawksmoor-good, and my daughter’s scallops, which at 400C must only have been in there for seconds, were just right for her (but might have been a shade overdone for me, if it had been me).
There is confidence, and a sort of Falstaffian jollity, in the way beefiness is allowed to suffuse whole regions of the menu, from the “beef butter” served with our bread, to smoked bone marrow in a tartare, to some excellent dripping fries. Small flourishes – confit egg yolk, burnt broccoli, heritage potatoes, sea veg – take the restaurant a few paces at least beyond the steakhouse comfort zone.
Plenty to like about the execution, too, on top of the grilling and roasting: good bread, a “school pudding of the day”, wonderful Leicestershire cheeses; an atmosphere that bloomed from a very faint chill at the start to clattering hilarity at the end, as locals arrived for a late lunch or Afternoon Tea (Classic, Gluten Free or Vegan).
And yet, and yet. The kind of good-but-not-too-fancy vibe that Black Iron aims for isn’t easy. Our lunch featured a number of what local sporting hero Gary Lineker might have mournfully described as “unforced errors” on late-night TV.
Sparkenhoe cheese fritters tasted great but were as soft as a Dalí stopwatch. The beef butter was too cold. The “bacon jam” was a kind of sweetened meaty crumble, too crumbly to adhere to the bread. Triple cooked chips were crispy on the outside but lacked fluffiness within.
A tomato and onion salad contained the advertised ingredients, to be sure, but it wouldn’t have had Elizabeth David turning cartwheels: the tomato was thinly sliced, flavourless and, again, too cold; the onions were sliced rather than diced or minced; the vinaigrette was too sharp. Serving such a tart dish in a cast-iron miniskillet may have seemed on-brand, but the metal started to taint the food after it had been sitting there a while.
We enjoyed our lunch, though. It’s a great room, and it must really come alive on a sunny day. The core proposition of meat plus fire is clearly stated and skilfully realised: people will know what they’re in for. I’d have gladly brought my mother, who celebrates her 87th birthday today, here for a cheeky tomahawk, if that had been on the cards.
In its robust flavours, its hyperlocal sourcing policy, its sense of extravagance and fun, Black Iron represents one possible vector for post-Brexit British cooking, though obviously Leicester’s burgeoning vegan population will have to look elsewhere. But I don’t think it would kill them to raise their tomato game a little.