If you are looking for a high quality but eclectic wine shop somewhere in the world, then Hanging Ditch, near Manchester Cathedral, is a good first stab. But what if you live the other side of the Pennines, and your passport has expired? Recommendations flooded in for Latitude Wines in the centre of Leeds, under the railway arches. It meets the eclecticity brief. Walking into a cave (as in wine cellar) with a claustrophobicly low ceiling with wine racks and baskets strewn at jaunty angles with random offers, it’s the sort of place that I find impossible to walk out of without troubling the wallet.
Anthony Flinn Jnr is blazing a one man trail in this part of the world. Not necessarily with his cooking, although we’ll come to that. No. Mostly in being the powerhouse behind saving the most beautiful building in this metropolis, Leeds Corn Exchange.
Not content with opening a bistro, a champagne bar, a fromagerie, and a café/patisserie, Flinn has now thrust American cuisine into this arty setting, otherwise populated by eclectic and bohemian shops of the sort your lost cousin from Hebden Bridge would sacrifice a goat to be seen in.
With the help of the Flinns (other family members are part of the team including his dad, Anthony Snr, who does “the finance”) and the retail footfall they have encouraged, even generated, this building is back to its beautiful, stunning, decadent self.
Anthony Flinn is a bit of a food legend in Leeds. His impressive CV includes a two year stint under Ferran Adrià at the world’s “best” restaurant, El Bulli. Flinn’s own flagship restaurant, Anthony’s, is perpetually tipped for a Michelin star. His latest project, Piazza, opened in late 2008, is situated in one of the most impressive, historically beautiful buildings in the North of England – Leeds Corn Exchange. Anthony’s footprint includes an impressive 125 seater brasserie, a patisserie, bakery, chocolatier and delicatessen. Wine, however, is another science.
My opening exchange with the waitress: Gevrey Chambertin Domaine Heresztyn 2005 please – what temperature would you serve that? “About two above room”. Ouch, no WART awards here. Please can I have an ice bucket? “Yes sir, no problem.” Things are starting to improve already. After all, the wine list looks well thought out, and superbly priced, and the menu looks bistro chic.
Silence please. There is a time and a place for a little reverence. I have just opened my first bottle of a very important wine. Château Lynch-Bages 2005. A wine that even en-primeur, cost me over £50 per bottle.
The Sunday Times Wine Club advised me to wait until 2010, but I could be dead by then and I am an impatient man….oh and I have 12 bottles so I can afford to experiment early. So Fred had a placed a fillet steak on the skillet and I released the special one from its enclosure.
In order to test my hypothesis that it is possible to contract Deep Vein Thrombosis whilst watching an opera, I went to see the 3.5 hour epic Don Carlos at Leeds Grand Theatre last week. But way back in 1867, Giuseppe Verdi must have foreseen that the seats in the balcony of this fine theatre would be designed for pigmies and children only. Although there was only one interval, he thoughtfully planned the opera in four acts with a total of six scene changes. My calves yelled with delight each time the curtain fell and I was able to stand for a few brief but exquisite seconds.
As an opera, Don Carlos has it all. Intrigue, deception, death, war, royalty and of course, adultery, all of which delivered by a huge cast. I know you southern types have Sadlers Wells and the Royal Opera House, but up here where it’s cold, wet and cheap… Well we have got Opera North and we are justifiably proud. This was one of the best productions I have seen with the pick of the cast being William Dazely as Rodrigo, veteran of equally excellent ON productions of Let ’em Eat Cake and Of Thee I Sing where he was a great President – John P Wintergreen.
Anyway back to Spain where Don Carlos (son of Philip II King of Spain) had to suffer the ignominy and heartache of having his promised love, Elisabeth de Valois, marry his father in a political settlement, and as you can imagine, that makes for a promising start to any story.
Meet a Yorkshireman and the word “baaaaaaaaaaaaa” springs to mind. How ironic then, that this land of sheep, where I have spent a large portion of my life, is seeing a proliferation of steak houses making a bovine takeover bid.
But here, sheep have other uses, mostly exercised at night and often, it is said, at the edge of a cliff so they push back harder. Such nocturnal activity demands that they remain alive. Perhaps this explains the fondness for eating beef, with or without Yorkshire pudding.
When it comes to dining, Leeds residents like to maintain their stature. Quantity is, therefore, the primary measure of a good meal. And there’s nowt wrong with that, provided that the quality is as good as the portions are big. And I prefer that they contain meat and not just carbo-fillers such as the eponymous local batter delicacy.
Blackhouse Grills is a juggernaut chain expanding rapidly, with six restaurants already spanning the country from Glasgow to London, but with the majority in the north of England. I spotted one in Leeds.
If West Yorskhire is within striking distance and you think you might enjoy looking out over the River Aire at a regatta of swans following a canal barge of revelling diners (I waved to them – birds and blokes alike) then Brasserie 44 is a place you might want to try.
Brasserie 44 shares a converted Victorian grain store with infamous hotel, 42, The Calls, one of the early entrants on this refurbished homage to modern city living. The Calls has turned the industrial past into the post-modern future – lofty living, dining and drinking quarter of Leeds city centre.
As taste sensations go, there is little to beat a hunk of well seasoned Argentinian beef, chargrilled and accompanied by a glass of decent Malbec. Chewing on the salty, aged and bloody meat causes a tingling in your gums as if a bovine mouthwash. This then undergoes some kind of chemical reaction with the deep, moody, spicy wine that leaves you digesting the meal for a whole week. Sharp pangs – taste reminders – keep haunting you like salivating ghosts of taste past that make you press your teeth together in muscle memory.
As Argentinian steakhouses go, The Gaucho Grill takes the biscuit. Not only for great steaks with superb ghost potential, but also for awesome (by which I mean sky high) wine prices. Markups of over 300% are commonplace. That is four times the retail price and presumably they pay the importer much less! Is there a venue which matches the steak quality and authenticity, but where the only fleecing is associated with an occasional lamb chop?
In Leeds, a place I dine all too rarely these days, River Plate has appeared on the site once known as the Calls Grill. The menu looked pretty similar to Gaucho but, to be frank, the wine list looked cheap!
I really wanted to like Casa Mia Millennium. My recent experience at Casa Mia Grande in Chapel Allerton was unparalleled. Also, Marco, ex Flying Pizza and Marco’s is running front of house, so I had high hopes of the Leeds city centre branch of this popular family run restaurant cluster.
Unfortunately, it is almost, but not quite there. For a start there is too much furniture in the awkward shaped rooms. Getting to the bar is a mountaineering challenge if there are more than 3 people in a room that should have capacity for 25.
Upstairs the main dining room’s tables sit uncomfortably together like patients at a busy clap clinic. It was almost impossible not to participate in the birthday celebration next door. By contrast, the service is a bit uncoordinated and, although there appeared to be sufficient staff, we did feel a little neglected.
When I wrote up my notes from the Leeds Restaurant Awards I was noodling why I didn’t spend more time in Leeds’ eateries. Vowing to put that right, I looked up the programme from the event for some inspiration. The Olive Tree was well represented and is a somewhat legendary Greek offering with three establishments in the Leeds area. Not exactly ubiquity, but I generally avoid chains unless they are focussed, and this one is the Leica lens of Greek dining.