From Po Boys to Pulled Pork and beyond

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Just before Christmas, I was invited to eat at the brand new sister restaurant to The Pit in Leeds city centre, the rather sensibly named Pit Chapel Allerton, due to its location. For those of you who don’t know Leeds very well, Chapel Allerton is about ten minutes drive outside of the city centre and quite an up and coming place, if it’s not actually up and come already.  There are already a number of cool restaurants and bars, one being the highly prized Mexican Pinche Pinche, so it’s well worth the detour if you are in the city.
Back in the day, Chapel Allerton wasn’t always this nice so it’s good to see it grow and the out of town vibe spread with new bar and restaurant openings, the latest of which is The Pit. Pretty much a carbon copy of the Central Leeds operation in terms of branding, design, menu and interior, The Pit is a big restaurant with equally large ambition and clearly they believe that the market is there for them to open here.
It was another ‘getting the kitchen up to speed’ event but this time a lunch table was offered. We paid for our drinks and the food was laid on and it was order at the bar as there was no table service for some reason. No issue, so we ordered from the same menu the Central Leeds restaurant has, which is extensive Americana. I’d been to the original restaurant a few months ago and I have to say was a little disappointed, so was eager to see if there was any difference with the Chapel Allerton outpost.
My lunch companion and I went for nachos and fried catch of the day to get things underway, both of which were perfectly good. It’s all straight forward food here so it’s all about getting the small things right – so far so good. I ordered the half roasted chicken for mains with mac and cheese side and my fellow luncher opted for the very good looking fillet burger, which came perfectly rare as ordered. The chicken came with sweet potato fries and a lip smackingly hot peri peri style sauce which was on the money and still makes my mouth water as I write this.
The menu is very much in vogue  right now and the time is right for burger / rib / nachos / po boys / pulled pork et al – and a particular emphasis on attracting a younger crowd will ensure the success of places like this.
With Schooners of Brooklyn lager to wash it down, this was the perfect easy going lunch and, in my opinion, a more enjoyable experience that the previous meal at the Central Leeds restaurant. Perhaps it was down to the food ordered or the nuances of the individual restaurants, I’m not sure. The service was better in Leeds, but the food was marginally better in chapel Allerton.
I’m sure they will iron out these wrinkles in both restaurants in the coming months, but one thing is for sure, restaurants in Leeds that serve this kind of cuisine will have one eye over their shoulder at The Pit Leeds and Chapel Allerton – there is a lot of ambition and investment here, and I get the impression they won’t settle for second best.

Mrs Atha’s and the best breakfast in Leeds

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A bit of an oversight that I’ve not written about Mrs Atha’s yet. It’s been open for absolutely ages and I’m well behind the curve in terms of up to minute coffee reporting. I’d walked past a few times and made a mental note to find the time to visit, then ended up visiting a few times in a flurry of coffee activity.
It’s worth saying a lot of time and effort has gone into the design of Mrs Atha’s, from the branding to interiors and beyond. I always spot this first up as it’s the business I’m in but I am a big believer in businesses that get this right always get the product right too. Other nice touches like Aesop hand wash in the toilets—the only place in Leeds that does so— tell me there is an eye for detail at work here.
The first time I visited it was a quick coffee and I settled at a table waiting for my friend to turn up, I marveled on how Mrs Atha’s actually makes you feel cool just sitting in it: like you’re in the know, and that’s hard to pull off. It’s also hard to pull off a genuine coffee alternative contender in a city dominated by corporates but Layne’s Espresso, Bottega Milanese and a handful of others have done it, so if you get your offer right, it can work.
I have bemoaned the lack of a genuinely great breakfast in Leeds but with Mrs Atha’s we do have a contender. It’s not your standard full English but a component led version, using Lishman’s bacon and sausage, thrillingly creamy scrambled eggs,delicious sourdough toast and buttered crumpets. Team these up with simply great coffee then we have something really good to get the day started.
The location on Central Street is definitely tucked away, not obvious, and I like that. The place isn’t enormous so does get busy quickly although there are seats downstairs. Food and drink are ordered at the counter and it’s brought to you, which works reasonably well although I’d quite like to see table service but I’m sure there are practical reasons why that’s not possible.
So, lagging woefully behind the bleeding edge coffee hipsters, I can now declare Mrs Atha’s my favourite place for breakfast in Leeds, safe in the knowledge that they’ve probably spotted something new anyway and I can enjoy my flat white and bacon sarnie in peace.
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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Rare

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It will be difficult to avoid inappropriate puns in this post. Rare is one of those over used pronouns that, in this day and age, gets done to death in marketing schpeak. Rare this, Rare that…But I will do my best.
Rare is a new place recently opened that we were invited along as a free blogger type gig (to get that out of the way) in the hope that if we enjoyed it, we would say nice things about them. When we started writing this blog, I never imagined that anyone would see any commercial advantage in my ramblings, but the world has changed, and continues to do so, and people do read good food blogs (me included) and listen to what they have to say.
Rare sits at the bottom of Leeds’ main shopping street, Briggate, on the edge of the gay quarter, which in turn is packed with great bars and nightclubs. So the location is good for the young crowd, as long as we oldies are allowed in, or at least know where it is. Ground floor is a very low lit bar, spacious and chilled and downstairs is the (even lower lit) restaurant. We were led downstairs into a cool basement dining room—a lot better than that sounds, trust me—intimate and hip without being pretentious. I have no idea how I make that value judgement, but there it is.
A stuffed longhorn cow takes centre stage, gazing wistfully into the near distance, through the gloom, perhaps wondering if his mates are going to be served up for dinner tonight or tomorrow. Either way, it’s a striking emblem and statement of intent.
Our taxidermist specimen offers clues too to the food on offer—steak, obviously—and chicken with pork for good measure. Lots of similarities with the menu at Tramshed, which is not a criticism as we loved it there. Simple is good: restaurants do seem to be adopting this both commercial and customer friendly strategy, which I welcome.
Everything was free tonight as they were trialling the kitchen and menu out but the one thing on the menu that attracted a £25 surcharge was the Longhorn steak for two. Of course, I couldn’t resist and thanks to my irresistible powers of persuasion, J couldn’t either.
Free range, rare breed pork ribs looked good for starters and they were soft and forgiving, a work of a long, slow roast. Spicy sausages were also a delightful mouthful and then the steak arrived. It had been trailed extensively by the attentive, first night staff, ‘it’s on its way!’ we were informed every 5 minutes. I hate it when you don’t know anything in a restaurant, sat for ages waiting for a main course that got lost in the system. No danger of that tonight.
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Then it arrived—a massive T-bone steak. A longhorn T-bone at that. It’s bulk straddled the plate with a challenging demeanor, daring us to come and have a go if we’re hard enough. Proper Leeds beef – or more precisely North Yorkshire beef, from Thirsk. It didn’t disappoint either, cooked to perfection for such a big cut, how did they get it so meltingly good in the short timeframe? Seasoned well on the outside, the medium rare inner contrasted pink and red tenderness with blackened grill frazzle.
I can’t remember what else we had, I think the triple cooked chips were the best I’ve ever had, but I can’t be sure. There will have been some sides or other (I remember some kind of beetroot coleslaw), but I can’t recall as it was irrelevant.
What I do know is that I think we just had the best steak ever in Leeds…a *rare* thing indeed (sorry).

Tramshed

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It’s not in every restaurant that you see a real Damian Hirst artwork in the middle of a dining room, but then London’s Tramshed isn’t your everyday kind of restaurant. Tucked away in the super cool hipster backstreets of Shoreditch, Tramshed is the latest restaurant opened by Mark Hix, he of Chophouse and Lyme Regis fame.
The name gives away the building’s previous existence and the cavernous exposed brick interior is both wow and cool from the get go. We visited on a Sunday night and it was still jammed, so much so we could only get a seat at the counter, which turned out to be a great move.
Sitting at the counter you get instantaneous service, the eye of your server but a blink away. It delivers a more engaging experience too, one which we tend to shy away from in this country, perhaps it’s our famous reserved nature – but we really enjoyed it and I would recommend it here. We even discovered that our server’s dad came from Wakefield, now that wouldn’t have happened if we’d sat at a table.

The place is all hustle and bustle, with a lively, laid back, family friendly vibe early on a Sunday evening. Watched studiously by the cow and chicken in formaldehyde—which has pride of the place in the centre of the room – we ordered cocktails and perused the menu. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable taking you through the form on the menu—what you should order, how much etc,  some people get annoyed with this perceived nannying approach, but I like it: information is power, especially in a cool London restaurant.

The menu is very simple indeed, chicken or beef ( hence the Hirst artwork and many others in the same vein adorning the Hoxton hipster brick) except for a few bits and bobs, which add some variety to the stripped back offering. I confess I do like this kind of menu: it makes life super easy for me and given I’d had beef the day before, my life just got even easier so we shared a full Swainson House Farm chicken (barn-reared Indian Rock, no less) and the birds are served legs akimbo, with feet attached, golden roasted with a ceramic pot where the head could be. Quite dramatic and very cool.
Starters were simple but lovely: light as air Yorkshire pudding with whipped chicken livers (oh my) and a shaved pumpkin and walnut fennel salad paved the way for a slap up feast that made us smile. Chicken, chips, onion rings, proper chicken gravy – before long we were knee deep in a perfect combination of a homemade / upmarket / dirtbag food experience. Some would say that is the perfect foodie storm and who can disagree?
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Tramshed white vino was excellent at a sub £20 price in London—shame on pricey Leeds gaffs pricing wine as a way to boost revenues. We don’t mind paying of course, but it’s in London that you see the value of a highly competitive market.
As per usual our eyes were bigger than our bellies and the chicken beat us and in turn edged out the desserts, but we left happy and full, satisfied that London cool needn’t cost the earth and provide a warm and engaging experience.
Northern restaurants can learn a lot from this—and I note with encouragement that newbie Rare in Leeds has taken a few cues from Tramshed, with great success, more on that later…
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Masia del Mar

Just up the coast from where we stayed in Tenerife is a small fishing village called La Caleta, there’s hardly anything there: a few houses clinging to a small bay, villas here and there and a handful of bars and restaurants. And ocean views to die for.
Masia del Mar is an inauspicious doorway in a side street that opens out into an old fashioned, relaxed family restaurant, fish bubbling away in tanks to the front, an open plan kitchen to the side, all industry and warmth. The best seats, if the weather allows, are on the terrace which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and on this occasion, we were ushered to a nice table with good views.
The restaurant was busy which is a always a good sign on a Sunday night in December. We ordered some house cava to get the ball rolling and then a bottle of Canarian Viduenos white, which was exceptionally good for the modest price. We’ve found Canarians will always try to sell you a local wine (and we would always request local produce) and although they are oddly more expensive than mainland wines, it’s worth giving them a try.
It’s pretty easy ordering food here, the seafood is spankingly fresh so you can’t go wrong, unless you don’t like fish of course, in which case you are in the wrong place!
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To begin with, we ordered the obligatory padron peppers and a plate of baby squid, fried in a light as air batter, well seasoned and piled high. It’s worth noting that starters are good value and over ordering is a danger as portions can be large. These were served with the local Mojo dipping sauces, one fiery, one cool and soothing.
For mains, we decided to share the house speciality, seafood paella. All Spanish restaurants would lay claim to their paella being the best in the area, but we’ve eaten here before and we know that their paella is certainly the best we’ve ever tasted. Packed with seafood, the secret is the stock: deeply fishy, speaking of the ocean, the product of a long, slow process. The rice is sticky, moist and a vivid amber colour, not just a sideshow for the seafood, but demanding attention.
Service is businesslike and friendly, not much English spoken but very easy to get by with a bit of Spanglish on the go. Masia del Mar is a place of simple pleasures, food to calm the soul and nourish the spirit, elegant and timeless, you get the feeling they’ve been doing the same thing well for years and will continue to do so in years to come.

Tasca el Callejon

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A return trip, pre Christmas, to the warmth of the Canary Islands, saw us visit the capital city of Tenerife, Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Projecting all the grandeur of a big Spanish City, Santa Cruz definitely had a South American twist to it, betraying some of its history perhaps as there are strong geographical, historical and, in turn, culinary links with South America.
Either way, we got the bus from the touristy south of the island, about an hour by bus up the dramatic Atlantic Coast highway. We had no set agenda as the bus bowled Northwards at a hair raising pace, but had read about an interesting tapas place run by renowned Canarian chef Braulio Simancas, so we hunted it out when we arrived.
Tasca el Callejon is tucked away in a quiet side street away from the hustle and bustle of the main thoroughfare but thanks to google maps we found it right away—gotta love technology. Too chilly today to sit outside (there was a storm brewing), we settled at the bar which is always the best place to sit in a tapas bar I think and the very friendly, mostly Spanish speaking waitress presented menus with English translations, although I like think we would have got away with the Spanish menu.
We took in the old world style of the restaurant: rich dark wood, impressive original brass coffee machine/urn, newspapers on sticks, if there was a grandfather clock, it would be ticking away in the corner. In short, a lovely place to while away an hour or two over a long lunch. We ordered a bottle of the Canarian vino blanco to get things underway—crisp and fresh—a bargain at 12 Euro, and got down to the menu.
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We ordered just three dishes: hand carved iberico ham with crisp tomato and garlic bread, irresistible croquettes spiked with chilli and finally, pork loin, tender and unctuous with figs. The portions were good sized and we were sensibly advised by the waitress that three would suffice and she was right. The Iberico fat stuck to the roof of your mouth as it should and melted delightfully, the croquettes popped with aromatic steam when cut with a fork and the pork loin was a revelation, sticky and sweet, served with hand cut rosemary potato fries.
I rued not trying other dishes on the menu that caught my eye, but that would have been pure greed: slow cooked veal cheeks, local smoked salmon with coriander…It’s times like this that only a tasting menu will do, but what we did have was both delicious and filling. Finishing off with a coffee and an outrageously large ‘ Spanish Cardinal Mendoza brandy— Christmas in a glass, delivering warmth and spice—we were happy as Larry perched at the bar jealously observing a large Christmas party as they arrived, surely to be treated to a long, late and lovely festive lunch.
We reluctantly paid the bill and left, anonymous diners hurrying back to a concrete bus station, clocking the steely grey storm clouds gathering, as the bus left the station, speeding southwards.