Cielo Blanco

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Restaurants in shopping centres. Huddled together on a godforsaken level above the shops in a homogenized open plan culinary hell. Okay, that sounds harsh: lets just say open plan hell.

It’s safe to say that I’d leave well alone and even when the children were of an age where a trip to a shopping mall normally meant a pit stop, we’d be out of there pretty sharpish. A particularly nasty incident still rankles well over ten years ago in the Trafford Centre in Manchester (don’t ask).

So when Leeds Trinity shopping centre in the city centre opened earlier this year, my hopes for anywhere half decent to eat were pretty low. But we have been proved wrong. The foodie ambitions of the centre development and management have been pitched well above the usual mediocrity.

The centre is home to a Conran restaurant and cocktail bar, which are not half bad, a couple of cool ‘must visit’ bars whose popularity is proven by the long lines every weekend. Of course there are the usual Giraffes, Wagamamas, Carluccio’s et al but nestled in amongst this fearsome competition is an independent Mexican place called Cielo Blanco. Did you spot the odd word out in that last sentence?

Yep, independent.

In a shiny corporate retail edifice like Trinity Leeds? Well, hats off to Trinity for seeking out the independents and double hats off for the folk behind Call Lane institution Neon Cactus for having a bloody great go at serving the best Mexican food and drink in the city. On top of this, Cielo Blanco boldly claims to be the ‘first authentic Mexican restaurant in Leeds’…I wonder what our friends at Pinche Pinche have to say about that?

I’ve been a couple of times and both occasions were top drawer. Fresh, zingly flavours, light street food, hefty hangover-curing burritos, pitch-perfect margeritas and a great setting all contribute to a real feel-good restaurant and bar. It helps of course if you’re a fan of Mexican food and this isn’t old fashioned tex mex stodge from back in the day, it’s light, almost tapas-like.

Both times we sat outside in the mall (and that’s not as horrible as it sounds) as even on a cooler afternoon, it was very pleasant. Service is informal, iPad-led and although the style is laid back, the reality is brisk efficiency. Right up my street.

Prices are good to say they will be paying through the nose for their location and the regular footfall of hungry customers must tell them they made the right call opening their doors in the largest retail development to open in Europe this year.

There has been a lot of talk about how Trinity and its new shiny places is stealing custom from the city’s other restaurants. I think it’s really simple – if your existing customers think for whatever reason you don’t care about them via poor service, environment or indeed food, then they will vote with their feet.

Yes, there will always be the new place to go and try.  I firmly believe as a regular customer in the city’s best restaurants (and I don’t mean expensive), these are few and far between and a city the size of Leeds is still poorly served in terms of quality and breadth of provision.

Because of this, I believe the mediocre will suffer and places like Cielo Blanco will flourish, because if they continue to do what they do well, they will be rewarded with return custom.

I’d say don’t be put off by the fact that you’re sat on top of a shopping mall with shoppers shuffling zombie-like below. Imagine, like we did, that we were sat on a sunny street corner in Mexico and you’ll be just fine.

The Whippet Inn

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Monday night is fast becoming gig night in our house. This Monday saw us hop on a train to see the rather wonderful Simone Felice play live in York. Now in my book, there is absolutely no point in travelling over to a great city like York without experiencing the culinary delights of the city. So we did.

I’ve eaten out in York only on a handful of occasions and each time it was places I’d heard of or were well known in foodie circles – J Baker’s or The Blue Bicycle for instance. Monday nights in provincial cities in these straightened times are not exactly packed with opportunities for great food – most of the nice places take the chance to have a night off on what is usually a quiet night.

A work colleague recommended a recently opened gastro pub-type joint, which was getting rave reviews. That was enough for me and I booked a table for two.

The Whippet Inn (fnarr, fnarr) is situated just a long stones throw from the station, tucked away down a quiet side street – so pretty easy if you’re travelling by rail, which I’d recommend as parking in York is painful at best. The restaurant has a simple, well-stocked beer bar and a nicely designed dining room at the back. The emphasis is on decent ales and wine and steaks although it is worth pointing out the vegetarian options, although limited were judged excellent.

The simple but well-curated menu had an air of confidence around the produce and the cooking. The 40 day beef caught my eye immediately and I opted for rib eye (as per) whilst the sister chose a summery halloumi and courgette plate. Starters were light and well put together, but the beef is the main deal here and who am I to argue?

We selected a Navarra Spanish red, which at £19 was well priced given its quality and it complemented the beef beautifully. Prior to the wine we had a cheeky blonde Scottish beer ‘Bitter & Twisted’ which set us up nicely.

I can report the steak was first rate – worth paying extra for 40 days, rather than 25 and the extra 3 oz from 7 to 10 was also worth the investment. Service was knowledgable and attentive even though our assistant waiter was in training it was handled well without any issues.

If you’re in York, this has to be one of your favourite new places.  In a city that is not exactly wall to wall with amazing eateries, I predict that The Whippet Inn will be a huge success.