Review: Get Baked Presents The Joint

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I laughed when my friend suggested it as a brunch destination – not because it was a funny joke, but because I knew he was 80% serious.  “Dude imagine if it turns out to be ace: you’ll be that guy who surprises everybody and gives it a good review despite what everybody else says”
 
He had a point, I do like being “that guy”, and there’s been an eerie silence surrounding The Joint since it opened.  The only press I’ve seen it receive has been from “Everybody’s a winner just for taking part!” publications who would write a positive review of the influenza virus if it meant the subsequent social media shares bolstered the price they charge advertisers.  With Get Baked/The Joint boasting an impressive sixty thousand Facebook sycophants, a couple of shares of a glowing review could bring enough extra traffic to take down a site completely.
 
Spoiler alert!  You’re reading this on a screen rather than from a crumpled piece of paper in a dystopian future where CousCousBangBang.com lies in tatters; ransacked by the sudden rush of traffic from Get Baked’s Facebook page.  Obviously this isn’t the glowing review you’re looking for – but it’s not all bad.

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Review: Ecco Pizza

 
 

Trying to review pizza seems like a pretty futile exercise; like Woody Allen says, “Pizza is a lot like sex – when it’s good it’s really good, when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good” (he stops short of mentioning the merits of “eating pizza” with your own step-daughter) and a lot of places seem happy to operate using that as their unspoken mantra.  

The fact that it’s pretty much delicious-by-design makes it harder to tell the difference between the pretty good and the really good – asking somebody whether they prefer one geometric lump of hot dough, cheese and sauce to another is like asking a Labrador to explain which of his ears he’d rather you scratched behind.
 

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Review: Casa Colombiana

Until fairly recently The Grand Arcade wasn’t much more than empty lots and curiosities; a shortcut between Vicar Lane and North Street if it was a bit drizzly; a place where you could smoke cigarettes indoors, having spent about £12 at Santiago’s Whiskey Wednesdays and feeling like the fourth Beastie Boy, circa 1988.  It had its attractions; beloved vegan restaurant Roots and Fruits, a vintage clothes shop that sold actual vintage clothes – rather than dirty Kappa sweatshirts and ill-fitting Wrangler jeans – but it was for the most part a very big, very beautiful, very under-utilised area of town.

Last year it received a bit of a spruce-up and a good portion of empty space began to fulfil its potential as Handpicked Hall – an indoor market where local independents traded on a monthly rotation.  Among the usual shabby chic wall-hangings reminding you to “Live, Laugh, Love” and soap that looks like macaroons there was some great food, and while Handpicked Hall ultimately came to an end, its legacy continues through the food which a lot of people first encountered there – Indie Ices, That Old Chestnut vegan bakery, and Casa Colombiana.
Just across the arcade from Handpicked Hall’s hollow remains, Colombiana has expanded from a humble coffee cart to a restaurant which they’ve decked out to look like the “South America” leg of Disney’s Small World After All ride.  The collage of terracotta paint, burlap coffee sacks and Papyrus typeface is a step up from cantina-style decor, but still casual enough that people at other tables are comfortable sharing notes on their meal if they notice you staring at their plates (Speaking from experience, there).  This atmosphere’s a product of not just the decor, but the owner who works the room like a restauranteur in a Scorcese film, indulging each table in enthusiastic, charming conversation.  The trade-off for getting this level of attention is that service isn’t lightning-fast – it took about fifteen minutes from getting in the door to having a (reassuringly strong) mojito in my hand, but the wait never feels like a chore.

For starters we had chorizo – plump little oval sausages, like bullies’ fingers in a Roald Dahl story – which are made in-house.  They’re warmly spiced, with a texture more similar black pudding than the overgrown pepperami version from supermarkets, present in around 90% of my home-cooking.  The plantain fritters would have worked for me as a dessert; thick ribbons of the stuff wrapped around chunks of Queso Fresco, skewered, and deep-fried; salty-sweet little mouthfuls tasting equally of halloumi, sweet potato and slightly underripe mango.

The Albondigas were great – well seasoned balls of coarse-ground beef, roughly the size of an angry toddler’s clenched fist, covered (not swimming) in a thick, picante tomato sauce.  They’re served with white rice and potato wedges – just in case starch is going out of fashion – but neither of them add anything to the dish, the rice just sits there, being rice, and the big daft potato wedges would benefit from a couple more minutes in the deep frier, to avoid comparison with oven chips.

That’s not to say they can’t get carbs right.  I ate the Llapingacho special – the eponymous focus of the dish was potato cakes, stuffed with cheese that was just the right side of stringy without turning into cartoon bubblegum.  The meal as a whole resembled a Food Pyramid poster hung upside down; flank steak cooked enough to make it tender, one of those fat little chorizos (I was thrilled to have one all to myself), fried egg, avocado, a moreish Aji salsa and a token salad – a hearty combination which captures Casa Colombiana’s ethos perfectly – casual, home-style comfort cooking done really well.

Two starters, two mains, a cocktails, Desperados and service came to around £50.  I wish I’d had longer so I could try the Ceviche and Arroz con Pollo, but I humbly admitted defeat – those strong mojitos put us in the mood to go a few doors down to Santiagos, and the food had given us plenty of reason to come back again.

Review: KFC Pulled Chicken Burger

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“If pulled pork was the dish of 2014″ begins KFC’s press-release – presumably typed with one hand while the other one fumbles around, trying to keep a finger on the pulse – “then 2015 will become the year of pulled chicken”

And with that, middle-class journalists and bloggers let out a collective scoff and churned out think-pieces and tweets ranging from dismissive nonchalance to disdain to the extent that you’d think they were reacting to the news of a new Royal baby.
I hadn’t seen such a negative response to a fast food promotion since 2009, when KFC (US) brought semi-pro level gluttony to the masses with its release of the Double Down – kicking off a trend of replacing the boring components of fast food meals – empty carbs like bread and crust – with more “EPIC” things like some meat, and some meat with some cheese on top of it.
There was an argument for the Double Down’s vilification though – replacing a bread bun with two pieces of fried chicken isn’t conducive to anybody’s healthy diet besides that of an Olympian in training, or an alligator.  Its critics critics had an angle, at least.
With Pulled Chicken though, KFC are guilty of a much more serious crime than promoting excessive consumption – they’re trying to be cool.  They’ve seen a new type of fast food emerge over the past couple of years – served in repurposed warehouse spaces and NPC car parks on Friday nights, they think it looks fun, and they want to join in.  The response they’ve been met with is a resounding “You can’t sit with us”.

In the spirit of investigative journalism, I went along to KFC and ordered the Pulled Chicken Ultimate Burger Meal – if you’re not familiar with KFC’s definition of Ultimate, it means that it comes with a slice of cheese.  The Paprika slaw is perfectly adequate – in fact better than some of the versions I’ve eaten in dedicated BBQ restaurants a few doors further down Otley Road – and the two mini-fillets are obviously brilliant, as KFC chicken tends to be.  They didn’t become as big as they are by accident.

Sadly, the mini-fillets are the main attraction of the burger, and the Pulled Chicken comes in such a measly portion that it can only really be considered a condiment in its own sandwich.  So much for the dish of 2015.  As for the bun; glazing a bread roll to try and disguise it as a brioche is the most literal application of “polishing a turd” I’ll (hopefully) ever encounter when it comes to dining.
It’s not an awful burger, and at £5.80 including fries and a drink it’s not bad value either, but the criticism was never levelled at the quality of the food – I seriously doubt any of the critics will ever even try the thing.  I understand see where the confrontation stems from; posh fast-food developed organically from seemingly nowhere through a lot of hard work – it’s a lot of peoples livelihood, and contains a lot of close-knit communities.  But this isn’t the first time “big-business” has nicked the “pulled” idea from the posh fast-food.
Greggs released a BBQ Pulled Pork Pasty a few months ago.  I tried it, and it was disgusting; like eating a pastry full of sweet, sticky moss; nobody kicked up much of a fuss over that though, because it was a fairly low fanfare item which received little promotion.  KFC’s attitude and approach to marketing is what has ruffled feathers – they’ve seen the glossy buns, chalk-board menus and other aesthetic nuances of the movement which people have worked hard to cultivate, and appropriated it in a pretty lazy way.  What’s more their press-release is rife with anachronisms; Pulled Pork was so 2012!  Scoff.

Review: Almost Famous, Leeds

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I like to think I’ve got my finger on the pulse when it comes to Leeds, so imagine my surprise earlier this week when Almost Famous opened up in the plot which previously housed Escobar – not only was I unaware that Almost Famous was coming over from Manchester; I also had no idea Escobar had closed.
 

If you’re unfamiliar with the place, Escobar wasn’t awful – you could get a pint of Heineken and a Tuaca for exactly five pounds – but thanks to its 7am license its default role was a last-chance saloon for staff from other bars and post-club stragglers, as well as being Disneyland for opportunistic middle-aged guys trying their luck for a one early-morning stand.  In hindsight, it was quite a sad place.

With all of its gorilla statues and pick & mix sweets on tables and walls covered in affable, jovial slogans straight off of Innocent Smoothie: the teenage years labels, Almost Famous yearns to be seen as anything but sad;  it’s totally cool!  Not like those boffin restaurants with their booking policies and table service and menus that contain punctuation!  The name above the door might have changed, but the sense of desperation still lingers.  From the American Psycho monologue repeated on the walls of the Men’s bathroom to the sub-Banksy “political satire” on the walls which would have been frowned upon by Nathan Barley (Cigarette packet warnings with cleverly subverted slogans like “Government Kills”, “Poverty can seriously damage your wealth”) – just looking around the place made me cringe so hard I almost shit out a diamond. Read more

Review: Ruby Jean’s Diner at Nation of Shopkeepers

Is there a type of restaurant so tied to a particular time and place in history as The Diner?  Hearing the word conjures images from a bygone era – an era of flick-knives, rock & roll, slick pompadours and McCarthyism.  I am of course, talking about Leeds circa 2012 – when Fieri’s Law was passed.

Named after amateur wrestler lookalike/ska-punk uncle Guy Fieri – presenter of TV’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives – the statute imposed that at least 50% of existing restaurants in Leeds – as well as any new openings – must carry the same branding and decor as a branch of TGI Friday from 1994 or a high school production of Grease – with a menu to match.
Following a complete refurbishment of the place some time early last year, Ruby Jean’s popped up in the kitchen of Nation of Shopkeepers.  It had always been there, mind you – and it had always been serving some of the best bar food and Sunday Roasts in Leeds – it just didn’t have a name or a logo.  Freelance graphic designers, fine art students and future unpaid interns would spend 5 nights a week at unfeasibly cool gigs, projected-illustration-post-dubstep events, and ahead-of-the-curve hip hop nights which somehow managed to dish out free fried chicken and kool-aid while avoiding accusations of cultural appropriation.
People grow up though, and venues change to suit their audience, and M&B – the brewery that owns Nation of Shopkeepers and her wacky-named sisters around the country – were proactive in shifting the focus onto food rather than events.  While the service is better than before – the new, airy ambience seems to have either cheered up the old stroppy staff, or driven them further underground – the menu is largely the same; fried chicken is still here, but it costs £8 now; and you eat it while sat at a table, rather than dancing around on one to Project Pat – so we gave it a miss. We ate a Matador – a small pan of £8 Mac & Cheese with Chorizo which was too soft, not baked enough, and it might have heard stories about something called “seasoning” a long time ago, that’s all they were; stories.  The cauliflower cheese – £5 cheaper at £2.95 – is a small moment of joy; baked properly, with cheese on top; seasoned well, and the vegetable has more bite and flavour that the pasta.  It’s only available on Sunday though.
The burger section of the menu is pretty absurd – a Pickled Onion Monster Munch, Emmental and Thousand Island Dressing variant stands out as particularly misjudged; rather than a bit of lo-fi nostalgic gastronomy it reminded me of The Simpsons (as most things do) when Homer – left to prepare breakfast in Marge’s absence – puts together a dish from cupboard leftovers; a bottle of cloves, Tom Collins mix, and frozen pie crust.  You can also get Monster Munch as an extra topping on any burger, at an ever-so reasonable £1 for three crisps.  
The painful Hippy Burger – a dry concoction of spiced lentils resembling amusement park-sawdust – was left mostly uneaten, as were 3 of the 4 Sliders; the patties in which were overcooked, hard-shelled aardvarks of minced beef topped with a pulled pork which resembled luncheon meat.  I don’t know how in 2014 – when Burgers are so ubiquitous that they’re no longer a food, but a talisman; a punchline, almost; of a movement – anybody is still managing to get them quite so wrong.  There’s a BOGOF deal on them every Tuesday though, which is worth bearing in mind if you’re ever in the mood for two terrible burgers.
The Chicken Wings, “smoked, with BBQ sauce” showed no sign of smoking, and even less of being saucy – the boffins.  They had the sort of bitter, carcinogenic taste that you’d expect from a festival disposable BBQ, I managed two of them before offering them up to the rest of the table, where they sat unclaimed until our table was cleared some time later.  And that was that, the bill (including drinks) came to £68.50 which – considering the majority was unpleasant or inedible – didn’t seem like particularly good value for money at all.
Somehow – inexplicably – rebranding Nation of Shopkeepers from “fun bar with fun kitchen” to a dedicated “Diner” has been detrimental to the quality of the food.  The other possibility is that the food has always been this bad; but we were all just having too much fun to care.
The Bill
Nachos £5.75
Matador £8.00
Meat Sharer £12.50
Cauliflower Cheese £2.95
Pickled Onion Monster Munch etc etc Burger £9.45
Hippy Deluxe £8.95
7 x Pepsi £21