Does Leeds need another cool, high quality, independent restaurant?

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This week we were invited to the opening of another new restaurant in Leeds, Shears Yard. And it was one of those soft opening events for friends, family, food bloggers and anyone else who knows me type affairs. A very nice young lady from the PR team invited us along and in the interest of keeping our readers up to speed with the latest happenings on the Leeds food scene, we duly attended (it would be rude not to).

The location of Shears Yard will be very familiar to Leeds diners: it’s the old Livebait building down on The Calls. For years, Livebait plowed a lonely, fishy furrow in the city for many years and was for a long time one of our favourite places to eat in the city. But the world changed and eventually it closed and whilst it’s a shame to lose a restaurant it’s tremendous to see new blood too.

Whilst Shears Yard is a new kid on the block, it also has some serious Leeds foodie provenance with the owners of the venerable Art’s Cafe striking out in a bold and entrepreneurial fashion. It’s also worth noting Art’s has been a long-standing success with loyal customers in the ultra competitive world of eating out in Leeds, so these guys know what they are doing.

The first thing to say about Shears Yard is they have loving and stylishly re-designed the restaurant making the nineteenth century rope and canvas warehouse look effortlessly cool and very 2013 Scandinavian chic. If first impressions are everything, then we’re off to a good start. The branding is clean and pared back minimalism, conveying confidence and individuality – this is no chain.

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The menu is refreshingly simple too, using in season ingredients and fashionably bizarre combinations to intrigue and delight. Although this was an invite only event, we could order from the main menu, so the kitchen were up and running. The mood was relaxed and efficient – although the restaurant was busy, service was brisk and cheerful with hardly any opening night glitches.

To start J selected the intriguing chilled pea custard with goats curd and I dived in for the scallops ‘old fashioned’ with Bowmore whiskey and orange glaze. Mains were fillet of beef with oxtail and marrow croquettes with Mrs D choosing the roast turbot with chicken fricassee. These were all excellent, with presentation of the food of a particularly high standard. Puddings had to be done and both the passion fruit creme brulee and the poppy-seed and raspberry muffin brought smiles to our faces.

I expect the restaurant will settle in very quickly, find its place in the dining out pecking order and if the standard on the opening night is anything to go by, then Leeds has another bright prospect.

Does Leeds need another cool, high quality, independent food establishment? Well, we don’t have anywhere near enough, so I’d say hell yes, welcome to Shears yard and I will return as soon as I can.

Six of the best Leeds bars

I get frequently asked which are the best bars or pubs in Leeds: by colleagues visiting the city, by friends on trips and by random folk on Twitter. It’s quite a tricky question because like everybody, I have my favourites. Depending on my mood, the weather, and a whole host of different reasons I will select an establishment based on a specific range of criteria.

It’s also tricky getting to a top six as Leeds is blessed with lots of very good places to have a drink. So I approached this task with a very specific mindset – which are my ‘go to’ places, where I know a welcome will await and result in an agreeable drink and perhaps some food. But that’s for another list; this top six is all about the booze.

So right now, in the summer of 2013 here are my current top six places I like to go in Leeds for a drink. I should point out that these are in no particular order.

The Cross Keys

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What’s not to like about The Cross Keys? Olde worlde charm in an urban environment, log burners in the winter, sunny courtyard in the summer. A peerless collection of local and international beers combined with a small but decent wine list means the drinks easily match the mood. The playlist is always good and the efficient hipsterish service rarely found wanting. It’s a great place to relax over a beer after work that very quickly turns into a low-key dinner as the food here is very good too. I won’t dwell on the food too much in this post, that’s for another list.

Maven

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No street signage, a bouncer on the door and a dodgy flight of stairs are the inauspicious signs that something interesting is going on.  Maven oozes cool that’s part understated confidence and part speakeasy flair. The only bar on my list that doesn’t serve any food at all, is a bit of a hidden gem in the city. It definitely channels a different kind of NY charm with cool clientele and even cooler bar staff. Cocktails are the main reason to come here and they are as good as you get anywhere. Early doors relaxed drinking morphs into beats and dancing later, attracting a younger crowd.

Friends of Ham

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A relative new boy to the scene, FOH is tucked away in the city centre and its unassuming frontage belies its stature in the city. A great list of beers, a very well curated wine list (supplied by local merchant Latitude) and, of course, the titular charcuterie. The only establishment on the list (or in the city for that matter) to have shuffleboard, FOH is a perfect location for a swiftie, a session, a leisurely snifter or indeed a tapas-style feed. It’s a reassuring sign that the place is always rammed and its position in the top six has been cemented by Observer food columnist Jay Rayner’s recent rave review.

The Adelphi

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This venerable old watering hole holds a special place in the heart of the Leeds drinking fraternity. Just over the river, this beautiful old pub wears its trademark acid etched windows with pride. One of the last pubs in Leeds that still retains its identity as a proper boozer, The Adelphi is now part of a chain, but you actually wouldn’t realise that, but in a good way. It’s really all about the beers and every taste is well catered for, and if you’re peckish, the food offering is reasonable too.

The Midnight Bell

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No list of the best pubs in Leeds would be complete without representation from Leeds Brewery, who leads the new wave of brewers in the city. Their growing portfolio of Leeds drinking houses is fast becoming a mini booze empire and the city is all the better for it. The Midnight Bell is two or three doors down from The Cross Keys, in the perfect location to service the growing number of media businesses in the area. The crowd is eclectic, dudes with beards rub shoulders with old school locals and its courtyard provides probably the best outdoor drinking experience in the city. No pub could survive these days without a decent menu and although the food is very good, but it definitely plays second fiddle to the beers.

The Reliance

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It’s very telling that most of the bars or pubs on this list also serve excellent food. For me it goes hand in hand and I can’t think of any place in the city where the booze isn’t supplemented in some way. The Reliance is a consummately cool bar and dining room in the Northern quarter with a distinctly lower east Side New York vibe. During the day, light streams in through big glass windows and on an evening a relaxed ambience takes over. Great local beers and ales combine with a well-judged wine list to make this a perfect stop off for drinks or an extended dinner.

So that’s my top six.

Let me know if you disagree or there are any glaringly obvious omissions. There’s bound to be some controversy I realise and even as I type this I’m thinking about other places I’ve missed. Notable mentions should also go to:

The Alchemist / Angelica  – favourite of the Leeds fur coat no knickers brigade, the city does love its glam and The Alchemist and Angelica sit astride the newly opened retail cathedral, Trinity. I do like a bit of glamour, mind.

Leeds Bar and Grill – see above re fur coat but this city square stalwart is still a boisterous place to grab a glass of Pino Grigio and possibly a granny too.

Whitelocks – Oldest pub in Leeds etc, this place is always great for a mid shopping pint, it still retains its eighteenth century charm along with a loyal clientele. Nice pub to hole up of a winter’s afternoon.

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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.

Dish, Leeds

After a very busy week spent mostly in London which included business dinners all you need is a night in but D had other ideas…..
I wasn’t told where I had to go and when the cab dropped us off at The Electric Press I thought we were going to start at Epernay but was very surprised when we walked into the little place between Epernay and Casa Mia called Dish. I had heard of Dish but didn’t even know it was there. The place is very small, under 30 covers but is nicely set as a Bistro style, wooden floors and dark wood tables, high ceiling lots of blackboards.

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The bar is tiny and the kitchen is open and small to say the least so I was kind of pleased that there where only 3 tables occupied because I worried whether the chef and his assistant would be able to cope.
The front of house is a charming young chap called Chris and he explained that they were fully booked so the only table available was the high one in the bar area right outside the kitchen but D was determined so we climbed into the seats.
D ordered a glass Prosecco and I had a Japanese whisky which I am particularly fond of at present called Yamazaki we asked for some crackling and truffle popcorn to nibble on whilst we perused the menu.

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Looking at the menu my immediate thought was, far too adventurous absolutely no way can these dishes be carried off in that kitchen! We ordered pan seared foie gras with apple and pork gel on toasted sourdough and artichoke crisps for me and East coast crab and sautéed tiger prawn salad with horseradish snow for D, I am guessing you understand my concern. The wine list is simple but well designed, we decided on a bottle of Laurent Perrier Rose as I hadn’t seen Mrs S all week!
The food was flying out of the kitchen and it looked amazing, the table we were at was turning into a “Chef’s table”, we were having fun and the place was filling up.
Our starters arrived and I can only say that both were just fabulous.

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We googled the chef who is Eddie Nuttal, very experienced, lots of flair and a star in the making but hang on we hadn’t had mains so let’s not get carried away too early.
D had slow roasted pork belly with fennel and chilli black pudding, smoked mash, pig ear and walnut salad and I opted for duck three ways, smoke crusted Gressingham duck breast, Peking duck consommé, pan seared duck hearts with pomme Anna. The amount of “wows, amazing” were off the scale…

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After all that I was full despite the beautiful desserts being taken out but D ordered lemon tart and see below because as they say a picture speaks a thousand words.

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We have no doubt that Eddy, Chris and the team here obviously deserve their “Best Newcomer” in the Oliver awards and will be successful. In fact I predict they will easily compete with the best places in Leeds….
G&D.

Trinity Leeds

Trinity Centre in Leeds is apparently the biggest Shopping Complex opening anywhere in Europe this year. It think it is named after the old Trinity church which it appears is having an interior make up but desperately needs a full on exterior clean as it looks forlorn outside the huge shiny new structure sharing it’s name. The Trinity centre is a Trinity of shops, bars and restaurants covered by an amazing glass roof that is designed so it overlaps in various places allowing gaps to the outside. The weather has been particularly cold but every time we have been it is like being “inside” a fridge so seeing ladies in heels and skimpy clothing rushing between bars is kind of odd. I have to admit other than to buy a pack of refills from The Pen Shop I haven’t been around the shops but there are some new to Leeds.
What is different is that there isn’t the normal obligatory shopping centre food hall although Giraffe, Carluccios, Waggamama and Yo Sushi represent the chains and the rest are smaller more stylish set ups.
In turn we have tried out Angelica (more later), The Alchemist and it’s sister bar The Botanist both of which serve great cocktails but very different in style. The Botanist is quirky and more shabby chic and although very busy right now the staff appear in better control, whether a pit stop whilst shopping or a pop in for one or two it has a nice friendly atmosphere. There is a heated outside area where you can see into the open kitchen which we liked very much but summer we thinks…
The Alchemist is aimed to be upmarket with a “science of mixology” vibe, serving the drinks in an elaborate mix of laboratory style vessels. All very intriguing and theatrical but the the thing is it is not all substance as the cocktails inside the vessels are on the whole excellent. The terrace has nice urban views and will be full in summer. We haven’t eaten at either the Botanist or Alchemist so can’t comment.

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So, onto D&D Group’s Angelica and Crafthouse which I guess are the anchor leisure food/drink destinations at Trinity. I am told this is D&D Group’s first foray outside of London where amongst others they own the very upmarket Le Pont de la Tour and Quaglino’s so the expectation is huge. Our first visit to Angelica was on a soft launch 1st Saturday night, as you would expect the joint was buzzing, there were eight of us booked in to eat but they can’t sit eight on one table so we had adjoining tables for dinner but then butted up after. The big idea is the raw fish bar which I was particularly looking forward to so you can imagine my disappointment when the ice behind the glass was covered in empty shells, looked good but EMPTY??

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Various dishes from sashimi to steak, to cold lobster left all eight of us underwhelmed, the service was also poor. However the drinks and atmosphere were superb and the views from the snow covered terrace are amongst the very best in Leeds centre, this coupled with the sincerely apologetic staff we decided we should go back but not for dinner. Lunch definitely and drinks without a doubt. After our trip to Casa Mia we decided to go back to Angelica for drinks to make sure we all would have a very “relaxing” Monday. We had a little persuading to do to get in as it was pretty packed but it was worth it, we had a fantastic night. My recommendation is not any of the great cocktails but the Venezuelan rum “Diplomatico” which is amazing.
This brings us nicely on to Crafthouse and our date night dinner. I have to add that we had had a good 10 day break from all the eating out by this time……. I know it has been a full on month so will we will be taking it easy for a while??
The Crafthouse space is all glass with a great mix of furniture from bar stools allowing seating looking into the kitchen to intimate tables enjoying a great view and a dining table for eight or more. Very impressive format.
The Executive chef Lee Bennett has created a nice menu that will challenge all the high end establishments in Leeds and beyond. Originally from Bridlington but travelled far and wide Lee has not lost all his roots with Bridlington, Lobster and “Ginger Pig’s” beef being a key part of his repertoire. They have what is called a Josper, some kind of amazing BBQ type grill which allows cooking at a high temperature adding that lovely sealed crisp effect along with smokiness without losing the ability to keep meat succulent inside.
As we had not had a date night for a while we decided what the hell and went all out. Laurent Perrior Rose, Grilled Lobster, Rib of Beef(accompanied by a very reasonably priced £21 carafe of Chianti)assiete of deserts and cheese over 4 hours. D and I can honestly say the Lobster was The Best and we were treated by the chef to a small amuse bouche version of his signature Lobster Bisque which was incredible in it’s depth of flavour with a heavenly texture

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How do you follow that, well Lee was showing off we think because the Rib was not only amazing but without doubt the finest beef we can remember tasting. We were pretty much beaten even though we didn’t finish all the beef so to our shame the desserts weren’t given full attention but we tried a little each of all of them and….next time! We waited for a while before cheese thankfully it was not a massive plate but just right portions of local cheeses which to be honest we played with but were lovely. The prices for the above are high but in our opinion worth it. This place will challenge it’s competitors to reach higher.

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Finally we had a very quick Monday night meal at Cielo Blanco a lovely independent Mexican and decided on the Street Food menu which allows you to choose 3 dishes for £10.95, we had slow cooked baby back ribs, pulled pork tacos, prawn tostados, mackerel and salsa verde tacos additionally we had a Mexican Fish Butty which was interesting. Mrs S had Mojito’s and I had a Modelo beer plus a couple of Virgin Mary’s to accompany the meal all were excellent. A nice friendly spot for a quick different experience.

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Will the Trinity Centre kill off the rest of Leeds High Street? I don’t think so if the Council gets it right and supports lots of variety with independents, festivals, street entertainment and develop a proper City Centre Strategy. Leeds is continuing to change so far for the better, let’s hope it stays that way.
G&D.

Casa Mia Chapel Allerton

As neighbourhoods go Chapel Allerton in Leeds is turning into one of those cosmopolitan enclaves of relaxed family leisure gathering that makes you feel good. Just recently we had two impromptu pop ins to Casa Mia followed by Easter Sunday Lunch with “the kids”. Six of of us sat in a place full of families enjoying a chilled out afternoon it was quite heart warming.
Antipasto, ribs, black pasta, pizza…

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Lots of vino followed by desserts from the fantastic display in the chiller meant we were in there nattering away for hours. Just before we called it a day we were treated with an alcoholic ice cream delight with Grappa/Limencello on the house.

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A true neighbourhood needs these types of anchors surrounded by lots of independents and Chapel Allerton is amongst the best in Leeds. Casa Mia is good value, great food and attentive service…
G&D.

The Ribman cometh

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I went to meet Mark Gevaux AKA The Ribman to write a post for The Culture Vulture, leading up to street food, art and music festival Amazing Graze on the 5/6th April at Left Bank in Leeds.

I like ribs. Which meat eater doesn’t? There isn’t a better meaty pleasure than tender meat, falling of the bone and for the more resistant morsels, gnawed off the bone. Leeds has kind of fallen in love with ribs all over again.

In the eighties and nineties, there were more tex-mex Americana joints in Leeds flogging poor quality ribs than you could shake a saucy stick at. And then they all vanished as we kind of fell out of love with them. Some of us rib fans waited patiently for the tide to turn, and guess what? It has.

Recently we’ve seen a resurgence in ribby pleasure in the city of Loiners. Rib Shakk, Cattle Grid and the newcomer Red’s are all delivering great quality rib action and that’s just to name a few. We might have a surfeit of rib activity, but the good will out and I’m all for a bit of competition.

But can ribs work as street food? And why would you even bother?

London based Mark Gevaux AKA The Ribman (‘Best Ribs in London’ is his gauntlet throwing strapline) has been causing a street food sensation with his off the bone pork baby back ribs at London street food festivals across the capital. His USP is that he lovingly takes the deliciously tenderised, smokey meat off the bone and serves the meat – after cooking it *overnight* by the way – in an enormous bun with his trademark ‘Holy Fuck’ sauce. Oh yes!!

Of course this kind of dirty deliciousness is all the rage in London right now and who are we to complain? I caught up with Mark at street food market Kerb at Kings Cross last week – I was of course taking my journalistic assignment very seriously…only to discover that Mark takes ribs very seriously indeed. In between being interviewed by a Danish TV film crew, he told me his pork is from free range animals, he makes all his own sauces and he even personally picks up his bespoke bread buns from a baker in South London every morning.

Mark is an interesting character: a trained butcher who has come to street food by a circuitous route via Spain and London. He has a loyal customer base and usually sells out by 2pm every day, so his advice to me was get there early. Of course I did and before I chatted to Mark I had to try the merchandise. I can vouch for the Holy Fuck sauce and he’s not kidding about tender, juicy rib meat that is the very essence of the pig. All served in a fresh, chewy bun on a freezing cold afternoon in Kings Cross. Perfect.

Mark is really looking forward to seeing what the good people of Leeds will make of his ribs and so am I. If you are partial to moist rib loveliness combined with kick ass sauces, then to be quite frank you need to be first in the queue when he rocks up in April.