Review: Ox Club at Headrow House, Leeds

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It seemed appropriate that shortly before eating at Ox Club, I’d been to the cinema to see the the Jungle Book remake.  What was intended as an hour and a half of listening to Idris Elba impersonate a tiger (and reassessing my position on the Human Sexuality Spectrum accordingly) turned out to be a parable about the responsibility that comes with harnessing fire.

Handled with a deftness of touch, fire and its many applications is what separates us from the rest of the animals.  Combined with a bit of ingenuity it’s helped provide us with hot water, the internal combustion engine, and toasted marshmallows.  In the clumsy mitts of those who doesn’t understand or respect it properly, the results can be disastrous; resulting in forest fires, singed eyebrows, and sausages half-cooked on a disposable barbecue.

Luckily, the chefs at Ox Club know what they’re doing when it comes to fire.

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Review: Iberica, Leeds

Iberica Leeds

You can understand why the group of City Lads getting politely turned away might have been confused – on the night we go to Iberica it’s halfway through something like its third week of soft-launch events.  A couple of soft-launches is to be expected, but several weeks’ worth is very unusual.  Restaurants have opened and gone out of business in less time than that.  It’s also a long time for a restaurant to be operating while not making any money (though, credit where it’s due, it looks like The Joint has been doing just that for a while now) but looking around the venue, you get the impression that Iberica aren’t short of a few quid.  This is no less evident than in the bathroom.

You’ve probably seen the bathroom by now – it’s  gorgeous.  Probably the finest bathroom in all the City.  It could have been imported directly from a Dornish palace – if Dorne existed outside the mind of George RR Martin – all patterned tiles, mirrored ceilings and rose gold.  There’s a 6ft wide stone sink in the middle that’s begging to be repurposed as a dolsot bowl for serving a world record-setting Bibimbap.  There’s mirrors on the ceiling, mirrors on the doors, mirrors on the walls, mirrors in front of other mirrors.  It’s a shrine to vanity itself.  It’s destined to be the place to get a bathroom-selfie for the foreseeable future.  People will flock here for that reason alone.  Whether the food is any good or not is irrelevant.  This has worked out favourably for Iberica, as the food we ate was, almost without exception, not good.

Iberica claims that it offers “the true taste of Spain” – if that was the case, I’d be campaigning for stricter border controls.

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Review: SushiWaka

Sushiwaka ramen

Questionable decisions and karaoke bars go hand in hand.  Domestic lager lowers your inhibitions; the e-numbers in bright green shots produce something similar to an adrenaline rush; close proximity to bawdy hen parties gives you a temporary self-esteem boost, and before you know it…  

“I have the vocal range to take on both duet parts of Nelly & Kelly’s Dilemma, easy” you think; “I should break the ice with my partner’s work friends by rapping Superbass”; “I WILL pay homage to Rock DJ by taking all of my clothes off throughout the course of my performance”

See what I mean?  Each decision more questionable than the last (they weren’t all in the same evening, though, I promise).  Eating dinner at one, though?  I would do anything in a karaoke bar (but I won’t do that).

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Review: Polpo, Harvey Nichols, Leeds

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If you were playing a game of Restaurant Cliche Bingo (2016 edition), you’d really fancy your chances at winning if you drew the Polpo card.  “Share with your mates, it’s ‘Small plates’!” the caller would exclaim, and you’d hurriedly dab off your first square.  “Commiserations; it’s ‘No reservations’!” – you’re on a roll!  

Eventually the caller would call out food served in novelty sombreros or on reproduction Louisiana street signs instead of plates, and you’d bow out; graceful in defeat.  Somebody else in the bingo hall was playing as Arc Inspirations’ latest opening.  You never stood a chance.

While it’s very trendy to make fun these traits – not to mention a great way of letting everybody know you don’t have anything more pressing to worry about – there’s no denying that customers react well to them, and they just work.  (Except the novelty tableware, my conscience won’t allow me to make excuses for that)

The reason they’re popular is, in part, down to Polpo’s first restaurant on Soho’s Beak Street.  It wasn’t the first restaurant to forego a booking system, nor was it the first to shun the starter-main-pudding paradigm, it just happened to be in the right place (an old shopfront in a trendy part of town) at the right time (just as social media was becoming an effective word of mouth marketing tool) and serving the right type of food.

Polpo’s cooking is a world away from tray-bake lasagnas and arrabbiata bogged down in passata associated with typical high street Italian restaurants.  There’s familiar dishes of linguine and ragu and pizzette, but with enough exoticism to make it stand out – octopuses, rabbit pappardelle, chicken livers, fontina – without being prohibitive.

All of this attention spawned a new generation of restaurants that had people queueing for hours outside previous retail lots – not even proper bespoke restaurants with custom restaurant kitchens.  But now Polpo has brought that blueprint to a new type of plot; the department store restaurant.

The area on the fourth floor of Harvey Nichols that used to house Yo! Sushi has undergone drastic renovation, all of the a bright, white and neon moulded plastic that made Yo! look like a sci-fi pharmacist has gone, and yes, so has the conveyor belt.  

As much fun as it would have been to sit by the belt and pick out portions of mobile Osso Bucco, I will concede that it might have ruined the aesthetic that they’ve gone for – comfortable, deep leather banquettes, wooden tables for two that can be pulled together to accommodate greater or fewer numbers, bare brickwork and a super-fresco ceiling, all dimly lit with a sepia hue from candlelight and yellow filament bulbs draped in linen.

It’s all very municipal and rustic, which is jarring at first – from the outside it looks very at-odds with Harvey Nichol’s fourth-floor, with its chrome shelves bursting with bottles of special edition Grey Goose and gourmet Jelly Bean flavours.  Just like when Santa’s Grotto appears on the second floor of Debenhams in November – How did that snow settle on the grotto’s roof when it’s firmly indoors?  Why is the painted wooden sign of this brand new restaurant so weathered already?  (No need to email your answers in, I’m not stupid.  I know Father Christmas brings his own *magic* snow with him).  Once inside though, the illusion of being in a Venetian bistro takes over – suspension of disbelief is only broken when you glance out the front door at a poster for facial cleanser or Versace aftershave.  It’s a real credit to the designers

It’s easy to perform illusions on people when they’re being distracted though; which the food does very well.  Brought out a few plates at a time, we ate an impressively soft, runny egg baked into spinach and parmesan on a pizzette, then used the crusts to mop up tomato sauce left over from spicy pork meatballs – a three-pronged barrage of flavour from chilli, garlic and fennel, which made the vegetarian meatballs – with Chickpea, Spinach & Ricotta – seem underseasoned by comparison.

Fritto Misto was technically outstanding, with a crispy, perfectly dry batter getting into every crevice of the al-dente baby octopus, squid and sardines, giving them the appearance of sandy statues in the desert, rather than cloaking them under a gloopy tempura.  Milky, tender cod cheeks with salsa verde are devoured after a squeeze of lemon brings them completely to life, but the lentils underneath – overly salty and not much else – gets ignored for the rest of the meal.

Why eat lentils when there’s Linguine with Crab & chilli to be had? A simple bowl of fat, yellow pasta drenched in a liquor so seasidey it could be running through Rick Stein’s veins; deceptively tasty and super satisfying.  Or slow-cooked duck ragu with gnocchi?  More generous with the duck than with the gnocchi, and even more generous with black olives and green peppercorns that combine to give an anaesthetic, medicinal twang, it buddies up perfectly to the deep mineral oomph of Cauliflower gratin with gorgonzola and fontina.

After such a rich combination of dishes, (not to mention the cocktails, served short, bitter, and strong) the temptation of Nutella Pizzette was all too easy to resist.  The only problem with small plates is that it allows people to build their own meal, and sometimes, certain people forget how to show restraint.  Instead, the Flourless Pistachio & Almond cake stepped in, mellow sweetness of honey and a light moisture & tang of lemon in the cake made it seem an almost sensible end to the meal.

We briefly considered getting a copy of the Polpo cookbook so we could attempt to recreate it at home, I think I’ll just go back to the restaurant instead.

Of everything eaten here, despite some being better than others, there really was no “star dish”, the one cliche of modern restaurants that it’s justifiable to object to; dishes that look good on Instagram and draw punters in, allowing the rest of the menu to get away with being mediocre.  Going for a menu of consistently very good cooking as opposed to a the “wow-factor” might let them down in Cliche Bingo, but it won’t stop them getting a full house, night after night.

Review: Khana Bombay Cafe

khana bombay cafe justin gardner

I’m going to pull back the curtain for a second here, and give you a bit of insight into this whole “reviewing restaurants” lark. 

As much as we’d like to picture ourselves going on excursions to the suburbs, eating our way around Brasseries, discovering diamonds in the rough and bringing them to the attention of the masses, that really doesn’t happen all too often.

In fact, the closest I’ve come to achieving that recently is declaring a new takeaway to have the best chicken wings in Leeds; sending out a 4am text to any friends I thought might be interested in the news, and publishing a tweet that I was warned “might ruin any credibility I might have accidentally accumulated”.  A return visit revealed that the wings weren’t actually that good.  Or perhaps my first, revelatory portion was a beautiful fluke.  Not to worry, I didn’t have that much credibility anyway.

No, more often than not we find out about restaurants through Press Releases.  Bullet-pointed documents that land in our inboxes to tell us what we need to know about new launches or revamps, in a digestible format.  Sometimes we’ll have heard of the restaurant already via word of mouth, but it’s usually our first encounter with new openings, and intentionally or not, it helps us form preconceptions of the restaurant before they’ve even finished grouting those ubiquitous white tiles to their walls, or deciding the precise diameter of their small plates.

When Khana introduced itself as a restaurant that “blows all stereotypes of Indian restaurants right out of the Tandoor with its quirky, stripped back vintage decor, casual all day-dining and cosmopolitan vibe.”, I suspected that the Manchester company (also behind restaurants Rosso and Don Giovanni) might not have done their market research, as Leeds is blessed with its fair share of restaurants that do that already.

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Review: Turtle Bay, Leeds

Cous Cous Bang Bang Turtle Bay Leeds

Having defied all conventional wisdom by opening just a week before Christmas last year, Turtle Bay’s new Leeds opening seems to have hit the ground running.  

Despite a poorly judged and even worse-received marketing campaign and app that stopped one short of blackface when encouraged customers the “Rastafy themselves”, trade didn’t seem to take a hit.  The traditional “January slump” is apparently the only thing that Turtle Bay wasn’t dreading.  Even when I was getting a tour of the restaurant before it had even opened, I counted 15 people in the space of two hours wandering in to try and get a table.

That said, owner Ajith Jayawickrema is no stranger to casual dining start-ups; he’s the man who started Las Iguanas from nothing and turned it into a £27million, 35-site empire.  With Leeds playing host to the 15th Turtle Bay restaurant to open since it started out in 2010 he seems to be repeating his former success, so obviously his methods aren’t to be questioned.

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