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.

Wahaca – Covent Garden

On a walk across London to collect our Paralympics Opening Ceremony tickets we, quite by chance, stumbled across a Wahaca. We had no plans for lunch, other than to try something new, so as soon as my son realised there were Churros on the menu we decided to give it a go. It was a bonus for us that they don’t take bookings as we were able to stroll straight in and were taken down to the brightly decorated basement seating area.

We have Thomasina Miers ‘Mexican Food – Made Simple’ Cookbook so I knew we were in for something spicy. The waiters were great at suggesting milder options for George though, or offering to put the spicy salsa on the side.

Because we wanted to make sure we tried lots of different things on our trip the Street Food part of the menu was ideal, allowing us to try several smaller plates of food, leaving room for something else later. I started with a beer and the boy had a freshly made lime and mint soda to wash down the tortilla chips with an excellent guacamole that we both loved. This must have been obvious to our waiter as he offered to refill our tortilla tin; we finished them off in seconds.

Next we had Cactus Tacos: Pretty damned spicy grilled cactus with courgette, topped with grilled cheese on soft corn tortillas. My favourites were the Chicken Guajillos and George loved the Taquitos, so much so that we had to try to recreate them at home. The boy got his Churros that came with a cup of strong dipping chocolate. I thought it was nice that the waiter said we were welcome to just come in for Churros anytime, no need to have a whole meal if that was all we fancied.

It’s a good place to stop off for something fresh and tasty for lunch and it seems that Wahaca’s are popping up all over the place as we saw one later at Westfield, just outside the Olympic Park. The Street Food dishes are all under £4 too, so it’s good value.

We’d definitely go again, not least because we didn’t take Ed, so he wants to join in on our next visit…perhaps then we can hit a few of the 100% Blue Agave Tequilas.

Mexico, via Leeds

One of our current food obsessions is Mexican.

I thought I’d cover off eating out nd some home cooking in this post as we’re getting Mexican every way we can at the moment!

I’ve written before about the rather wonderful Pinche Pinche in Leeds – the best Mexican restaurant I’ve been to in the UK — admittedly, I’ve not been to many, but it’s still great all the same. This week we popped along to a Tequila tasting and Street Food night and had a rare old time sipping 100%agave tequila (the only tequila you should ever drink BTW) and chomping away on snacks street food taco-style food.

It was all about the tequila to be honest and I was cool with that, the highlight being a deeply flavoursome tequila that at some stage in its making has a smoked chicken (yes and actual chicken) dangled in the cask. Awesome.

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Earlier in the week we were delving deep in Thomasina Myers’ mexican Cookbook. Her food is similar to Pinche Pinche in that it’s all about bright, fresh flavours. We must go to one of her restaurants Wahaca in that there London.

I made a homemade searingly hot salsa using habanero chillis (scotch bonnets) which we found to be completely addictive smearing it on everything. To accompany the salsa, I grilled some fresh seafood from Leeds Kirkgate market – monkfish and jumbo prawns in this instance, marinated in lime and bay along with the essential coriander dressing.

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Mexican food is very simple and not a) stodgy and heavy or b) blisteringly hot.

It’s all about the fresh, vibrant flavours with Mexican cooking. There’s lots of influences in there too – it’s not one dimensional – Spanish, Italian and South American all combine to make exciting food.

I managed to lay my hands on some chipotle chillis (smoked, dried jalapeños) via Simon at Pinche Pinche, so I’m thinking right now they’ll go nicely with some fish or chicken…here we go again!

Pinche Pinche – Round 2

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We were invited along to the launch of the new menu and Pinche Pinche in Leeds. I won’t go into masses of details as the previous post pretty much covers how good we thought the place is.

Suffice to say that we remain just as impressed as we were the first time around and the transformation from Tex Mex stodge to light and vibrant authentic Mexican food is well underway. I understand there’s still a lot of people out there who crave Chimichangas and refried beans but unfortunately I’m not one of them.

Pinche Pinche is still the only Mexican restaurant in town doing the business as far as I’m concerned and Mrs D’s obsession with the flavours dictates a swift return.

Pinche Pinche

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After our California trip this summer, we got a real taste for mexican food. of course when you’re back in the UK, the first thing you do is try and recreate the feel good food of your holiday. Hands up who’s come back from a sun drenched week in Spain or Italy eating sun soaked tomatoes, artisan cheeses, amazing cured meats and spankingly fresh bread? And what happens when you try and recreate this in our country – you know the rest, it fails.

So we were interested to hear about a new Mexican restaurant that’s opened in Chapel Allerton in Leeds. Chapel A (as it’s known locally) is a real up and coming part of Leeds and in the past year or so has become home to some of the cooler and more interesting places to eat in the city.

Pinche Pinche is one of them.

Housed in a row of shops on the main Harrogate Road, this small, cool and well put together restaurant is cooking up some of the brightest and freshest flavours I’ve tasted for a while. Mexican fell out of favour I think in recent times and some local old school gaffs didn’t do the cuisine any favours. It seems now is a good time to be launching a Mexican food ‘offering’.

The service is laid back and informative, the interior cool Mexicana with day of the dead-esque graphics and not a cactus in sight (except on my plate, but more of that later). The menus were stapled photocopies stapled together (yes, the place is that new) but that was fine and we took the advice of our waiter and ordered lamb and king prawn tacos to kick off and beef enchilada and fish burrito for mains. Sides were plantain and cactus tostada on the advice of our on the money waiter.

Julie has been quite taken with the Tomasina Myers mexican TV show on Channel recently and we have been through the gears on mexican cuisine somewhat over the past weeks. The flavours are simple, fresh and bright and some might say, a little bit samey. Granted, the holy trinity of chilli, coriander and red onion feature heavily all over the menu but I have to say it was spot on – a little of what you fancy and all that. The tacos were hoovered up in record time and special mention goes to the Mango salsa with the king prawns. Julie’s beef enchilada was a plateful of heat and richness and although my fish burrito was the size of a small house brick, it packed plenty of fishy loveliness.

No room for Churros with chocolate (next time) and all of this was washed down with the obligatory mexican beer or two. Food prices are very cheap – starters around £4 and mains between £8-£10. As usual, the more booze you consume the higher the bill. Worth point pointing out that there is a shelf or two of some rather fantastic looking Tequila and if that’s you’r snifter, I recommend an evening there and a taxi.

All in all, this place deserves to do well and delivering great tasting food at good prices in a vibrant atmosphere it should be a huge success.

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