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.

Where are the best steaks in Leeds?

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Hands up who doesn’t like a good steak?

Apart from the justifiably aggrieved vegetarians at the back flicking me the double V’s, I would hazard a guess most people would keep their hands in their pockets. In the UK we do love a good piece of meat and we seem pretty much hard-wired to loving it. Of course, I’m generalising hugely here but meat looms large in our diet and in particular, but we do love a bit of beef.

Our love affair with bovine consumption has been talked about extensively in the context of how expensive meat is to produce and how resource intensive it is to get it from the field onto our plate. We have all seen how the price of said flesh has rocketed in the past few years to reflect this and as a consequence, some cuts of meat have definitely become a luxury item with people even opting to go meat free for one or several days a week.

This rising cost and awareness has made beef  and in particular steak, a once a week affair—or even less— with wallets and consciences joining force to limit consumption. But still it sits at the top of a restaurant menu, the most expensive item and I’m guessing that the reason it still sits there is because customers still crave it. Personally I always find it hard to overlook the indulgence and inherent cave man reflex to order a slab of medium rare beef, although my wife has a more considered, less beefy palate. It’s definitely a blokey thing too and I’ll hold my hands up to that, but the joy of the carnivore is certain to be experienced across the gender divide.

That brings me to one of the most common questions I’m asked after which is the best restaurant in Leeds, and that’s where is the best steak to be had in Leeds? Now there is no simple answer to this. Sure we have plenty of specialist ‘steakhouses’ in the city that would lay claim to this title and we definitely have enough high quality restaurants who say they serve tip top steak action.

It’s all down to the mood you’re in I believe: fancy, informal, quick, leisurely, dirty, clean, flames, saucy. So here is my guide, which is by no means scientific—or exhaustive—but it is based on the hard-won factual approach of hauling my not insubstantial ass around the city in search of beefy nirvana.

Here we go then, in no particular order…

gauchGaucho— top-end Argentinian beef extortion is the game here and if your pockets are deep and you have the eyesight to see your dinner through the gloom, you will be rewarded with steaks of epic proportions and taste. Special occasions only, in my opinion. Nice Chimichurri sauce though.

La-Grillade-signLa Grillade—the only restaurant in Leeds to serve old school French Chateaubriand style fillet. If you can put up with the surly french waiters then you will be rewarded with fillet steak of the gods and proper french fries. Off the scale cheeseboard too.

steak-fazenda-webFazenda—the only Brazilian rodizio in the city where it’s possible to eat your own body weight in meat. Top tip: wait for the good cuts of meat to come out near the end. Watch out for: over ambitious male diners suffering the meat sweats.

Leeds Light opening 2013-1373595175Miller & Carter—small chain of pure play steakhouse restaurants with newish outpost in Leeds. In truth, slightly disappointing but if you must go, the ribeye was very serviceable last time I was there.

Delve-Kendalls-Bistro-Full-Res-001-re-editedKendell’s—Leeds’ best restaurant (I coined that phrase by the way) serves an amazing Cote de Boeuf with an outrageously unctuous cylinder of bone marrow on top. Always a challenge for me, ordering anything else, when I see that on the blackboard. Unfashionably expensive fillet is beautiful here too, pricey but push the boat out. Proper sauces too.

P4308240bThe Cross Keys—I’ve seen grown men cry here when they are told that the steak has sold out, I know, as I was one such man. Unassuming sirloins and twice fried chips have a mainstream following here. Also, Sunday roast beef is the best in Leeds.

bbq-the-restaurant-bar-grill-webRestaurant Bar and Grill—overpriced glamour is what we like in Leeds and you get it in spades here. Food always seems like an afterthought and the steaks are no exception. Oddly, the fish is always good here where the steaks fair to middling (or overcooked like the one in the picture).

cattle-grid-web-668x341Cattle Grid—situated in the worst location, which was the best location 5 years ago, Cattle Grid is an oddity. Part rib shack, burger joint and half hearted steak house it suffers from a serious bout of mediocrity.

let-there-be-meatRed’s—personally I wouldn’t order a steak in here as there’s too much fun to be had with artery hardening burger stacks, proper BBQ ribs, deep fried pickles etc…they do serve a steak if you’re interested, but the real action is dirtbag food from the pit.

crafthouse_menus_653x279The Craft House—swanky Conran gaff atop the Trinity shopping mall (not as bad as it sounds) cooks a mean rib of beef in its josper oven (I have no idea either), and a bank loan is required to foot the bill. The swish setting is oddly unsatisfying and I’ve damned it with faint praise a few too many times.

Rare-5-web-668x341Rare— Leeds’ newest addition to the restaurant scene opening only last week. A daringly simple menu goes for broke with pared back beef, chicken and pork under the watchful eye of a stuffed Longhorn. The said locally sourced rare breed T-Bone steak for two was amongst the best (and biggest) beef I’ve tasted not just in Leeds, but anywhere in the UK.

Rare breed beef, monster T-bone cut, exquisitely seasoned and cooked to perfection—could this be the best steak in Leeds??

Let me know what you think…who do you think I have I missed or what have I got horribly wrong…