Autumn’s drawing in. You can feel it in the air – the way it skims your cheeks with a new freshness; the way the breeze carries a faint smell of half-squelched leaves and unexplainable woodsmoke.
We’re denying it with every fibre of our beings – saying things like ‘We’ve not even had a year let alone a summer!’ – but we know we can’t stop it. All we can do is embrace the coming darkness – and I don’t know about you, but my plan for getting through it in one piece remains a firm combination of food, drink and, well, food.
This is the mundanity of the thoughts running through my masked head as I sit in my first Uber since January, en route to a pre-booked, socially distant table at Chapel Allerton’s Black Market. When we arrive, we pull jackets over hair against the lashings of August rain and dart across the road to the restaurant’s welcoming shelter, where we rub alcohol on our hands and try not to drip on the bare concrete floor.
Black Market’s craft is that nebulous form of cuisine ‘contemporary British’. And its concept – the waitress tells us excitedly, as we pass back the wine list (having ordered a particularly drinkable bottle of Picpoul de Pinet) – is ‘social dining’, an experience based around sharing, discovering and indulging in new and familiar flavours together.
The menu is not extensive but the dishes are complex and intriguing – blending bold tastes textures with unexpected twists; traditional pairings with influences from all over the world. We order harissa marinated olives and peruse. It’s pretty chill when it comes to who eats what and when. Forget starter-main-pud rigidity – just order a selection of ‘sharing plates’ (starter size portions), ‘large plates’ (main size dishes), sides and snacks and enjoy it together. Kind of like tapas, without the regrettable extra portion of patatas bravas, or the outrage at an inexplicably odd number of chicken wings.
We opt for four sharing dishes, one main and one side which suits us perfectly – and leaves room for desert. The hands-down star of the show is first to arrive, so I’ll get right to it and tell you that if you go to this restaurant (and don’t have a shellfish allergy) you need to try the scallops. Tender and creamy with a signature sweetness and bathing in a rich seafood bisque – classic, memorable and oh so picturesque.
With them comes a burrata dish, served with heritage tomatoes and red pepper gazpacho. Sadly, this one’s a mistake, the poor burrata arriving swamped by ungainly tomatoes and acid levels just a little too high.
By contrast, the saltfish fritters and roast cauliflower dishes are both excellent – a vibrantly sweet dill sauce lifting the saline tang of the fried fish, and swollen raisins giving an unexpected boost to the cauliflower’s smokiness.
Filling up, we sit back to admire the surroundings. Black Market turns two this year, and it’s good to see the restaurant fully booked despite the unavoidable false start that 2020 has been. It’s a compact space with quirky Grace Jones prints as you head downstairs to the bathrooms. A purple velvet curtain swathes the door, wine bottles stand proudly next to a well-stocked bar and cosy seating outside nestles away from the noise of the road. It’s nice.
Our large plate arrives in the form of braised pig cheek, with thick lardons, wild mushrooms and truffle mash. It’s a flavour freight train and packs an almighty punch – earthiness combining with rich pork juices to create a dish of satisfying presence. Tiny pearl onions (like smaller, softer pickled onions) add a piquancy that cleverly balances the beefier (sorry, porkier) flavours.
A side of charred stem broccoli provides just the garlicky, chilli-infused kick we were after, and with the wine drained from our glasses, it’s time to contemplate the sweeter side of things.
Homemade baklava seems an unexpected addition to Black Market’s menu – but if there’s one thing this restaurant excels at, it seems to be the art of the unexpected. Sweet, crispy, moist and accompanied by a shock of rich ice cream, it’s the perfect finale to an evening of delightfully adventurous dining.
There’s also a decent selection of spirits and cocktails (the coffee machine has been whirring up a steady stream of espresso martinis all night) if you’re after something to extend your night.
The bill is not insubstantial – a little on the pricey side for some of the smaller dishes we plumped for – but the quality is unquestionable (and the safety precautions flawless) so it doesn’t feel wildly over the top.
A clear rising star for Chapel Allerton and perhaps the wider area, Black Market is worth making an excuse to celebrate.
Feature photograph by Stan Graham. Other photographs by Kate Ryrie.