As my feet pound the hot pavement alongside Saltaire Road, I quietly curse the train that faltered and failed me at Shipley. I was transported back to cooler times.
Deep in winter I had caught up with Beth O’Reilly whilst she sanded furniture at Nordish on Victoria road. We spoke of catching up in Spring post refurb and reopening, once the dust had settled and the natural wine was in full flow. So, true to her word I am welcomed, my delay excused with a smooth tumbler of Ciello Nero d’Avola in hand. Joined by partner in crime Sam Leach, we sink into the same beautiful chairs they were restoring when there was still snow on the ground.
As our conversation about Nordish unfolds Sam speaks so softly I worry my recorder won’t pick up his voice – each detail of his journey from teen muso to chef more underplayed than the next.
He describes the heat, pressure and burnout of a Michelin brigade with mixed feelings. Love for the vision of Simon Rogan and Mark Birchall whose craft he studied yet relief for the distance that now lies between their service machines and his own new digs.
Eating at Nordish, you can trace a line from those early Rogan & Co influences to where their menu is now. Sam is drawing on a bank of skill earned through college study and the intuition that comes from an archivist’s enthusiasm for collecting books on Scandinavian food culture.
I meet them at the quietest moment in their weekly cycle, a schedule which keeps them busy in a different way.
It’s early evening, the front door remains open but blocked with flower pots to discourage curious folk from wandering in. They get a lot of this in their prominent location whilst opening just three days per week. This perhaps reveals a disconnect between local expectation and the reality of what they are setting out to achieve. “Everything at Nordish is made here” Sam reminds me. It’s true, from the rye loaves whose dough enjoys a slow, cool maturation over several days to the cured salmon and smoked sunflower seeds – there are no food service vans hiding in the alley and everything must be fetched by bicycle or on foot.
“We get the odd request for a bacon sandwich.” explains Beth. “We do have bread, and bacon but just enough for the orders for the chicken Smørrebrød, nothing more.” Minimising waste is a key part of their approach and their short menu is at odds with most other local eateries and their myriad options trying to please the broadest crowd.
Outside, neighbours Rad Studio and Giddy Arts are pals with Beth sending espresso seekers down the hill for their fix and Joel of Giddy in return recommending Nordish for lunch. This approach echoes the collaborative spirit of older Saltaire indies from the Cap and Collar to Tambourine and is the life blood of Saltaire’s most interesting new ventures.
We reflect on the Scandi zeitgeist that is pervading the UK today through food, design and lifestyle. We decide, in food at least, that the main appeal is simplicity and authenticity – something Nordish carries in spades. The ‘ish’ in the café’s name belies the self-awareness of Beth and Sam in that they make no claim to a particular strand of Scandinavian cuisine.
Instead, they are exploring a process led by seasonality and locality with rigour and understanding that surpasses other kitchens in the area. An ingredient that might only be with us for a few weeks is the starting point and the slice of rye is the constant. An evolving ‘side dish’ changes week to week exploiting the parallels that can be drawn between this place and the landscapes, flora and fauna that inform Nordic approaches to cookery.
So, in their own way, despite the disclaimer of the ‘ish’ above the door, I would argue they’re actually some of the most exacting and precise foodies around. Beth suddenly turns to Sam as he explains their new stock made from asparagus, jersey royals and more. “Can we try the tomato water?” she asks. Returning from the open kitchen with Tupperware and spoons Sam reveals a tub of summer, so much more than the sum of its parts. Olive oil, salt, tomato and dew – the remains of the best tomato salad in liquid form.
Their plans are to grow slowly, just as Sam might plan a new dish – only adding something when the feeling is right and sharing widely when the certainty follows. They recently took a well-earned pause to trial recipes for their first evening services, beginning in September.
Rye loaded with goodies will be the centre-piece but a wider range of smaller plates will join in support. I will be there, hammering on the door, yearning for hay mayonnaise, lovage emulsion and pickled blueberries – just the first few weeks of delight Nordish has brought us, with so much more yet to come.
Nordish – 79 Victoria Rd, Shipley BD18 3JS. Opens Friday, Saturday and Sunday 10-5pm