Bar Soba Leeds opened around a year ago – the final lick of paint which completed the transformation of the Grand Arcade & Merrion Street from a dingy-yet-charming hovel into Call Lane 2.0. Primarily a cocktail bar which proudly boasts a menu of pan-Asian “street food”, Soba occupies the location in The Grand Arcade that previously homed nightclubs like Heaven & Hell, which famously had a “£7 all you can drink” offer. Midway through the first course it became apparent that Bar Soba was adhering to this tradition – I could barely stand to eat more than £7 worth of this unimaginative, unaccomplished cooking.
Ordering Thai Fishcakes as a starter is a reliable indicator of the quality you can expect for the rest of the meal, and the ones here were just that. Claggy and mysteriously sweetened – an homage to those donuts you eat by the paper-bagful along the seafront – were mistaken for Sweetcorn Fritters initially, with the Sweetcorn & Coconut Fritters themselves mistaken for globs of deep-fried Play-Doh, all mushed and oily from the fryer, with none of the ingredients distinguishable in what was served.
I don’t know what was inside the Steamed Beef Wartip Dumplings as they lost the battle for taste against a soy-heavy, shop-bought dressing, and those crispy onions you buy in tubs from Ikea, but considering the dumpling skin shared the texture and appearance of soft-boiled condoms, I’d rather not find out. Lime and Coriander Prawn Katsu is the only starter which isn’t an unmitigated disaster – only because I’ve grown accustomed to frozen, breaded prawns from family Christmas buffets catered by Iceland. The ones served here are of a similar standard, and bewilderingly served with the same assorted dips you get with poppadoms from an Indian Takeaway.
The Real Junk Food project recently took up residence in Santiagos just opposite Bar Soba, taking donations of unsellable and waste produce from supermarkets and restaurants, saving it from the landfill and selling meals on a Pay-As-You-Feel model. It’s an admirable scheme and one which is gaining traction across the UK and Europe.
Judging by the contents of Bar Soba’s Chilli Pork Ramen, they’ve taken inspiration from TRJFP and started bulking it out with leftovers from last week’s Toby Carvery steamtrays – I’m not expecting Koya or Shoryu-level authenticity from a bar-turned-restaurant which offers more than 40 broad interpretations of Asian dishes, but if you’re going to put Carrots, Broccoli and String Beans in a ramen dish, at the very least cook them properly. These particular ones disintegrated like a damp sandcastle at the faintest touch; patients recovering from invasive root-canal surgery would probably describe these vegetables as “somewhat lacking in bite”. Some of that cooking time could have been devoted to the freeze-dried noodles, which were cooked just enough to start breaking down the surface starch into a gluey paste, but not quite enough to prevent the middle from being solid.
To offer some balance, they know what they’re doing when it comes to meat – the roast pork is succulent with good ribbon of just-cooked, tender fat, the spices are balanced and there’s a satisfying char on the outside (the broth however was nothing of the sort – muddy, weak and one-note without even a hint of the dashi that usually adds complexity to good ramen, and elevates it above something you can make at home with a Stock Pot and kettle).
If this version of Singapore Street Noodles became well known it might cause irreparable damage to the country’s culinary reputation and tourist industry – lukewarm and lacking in the depth and brightness of flavour usually associated with the dish, it arrives tasting of nothing but cheap crisps. We request it without meat, so there’s a scattering of miniature, gnarled prawns punctuating the dish, as if somebody accidentally spilt the contents of a pair of nailclippers over it.
Soba is a big venue with a lot of flashy distractions; upstairs occupies the grandest part of the Grand Arcade, featuring a beautiful glass roof, DJ booths and a 20ft projected animated mural. All of this doesn’t come cheap, and to pay the bills they have to get a lot of people through the door every month, and to do this they have to position themselves as a destination that big groups can compromise on – it’s certainly the only venue I’ve ever seen to offer pints of Carling alongside whole bottles of Patrón on the drinks menu.
In trying to kind-of please everybody, all they’ve succeeded in doing is providing the worst possible version of everything that’d on offer. There was nothing here which captured either the finesse or the gutsiness of proper Asian street food – in terms of authenticity, this is about as genuine as White-girl bindis at music festivals.
The bill – including 2 drinks and service – came just short of £60, and there really is no reason to be spending that kind of money on a standard of food which can be bettered by that of Wok On.
For other Pan-Asian recommendations, check out our Leeds Restaurant Cheat Sheet