I like Saturday Kitchen as much as the next hungover twenty-something – except for that section where they try to make omelettes really quickly – the chefs can tend to get overgiddy, loud and shrill and the closeups of the semi-raw omelettes do nothing for a queasy tum. But there’s a lot to be said for the cuddly reassuring face of James Martin and his ‘classic’ cooking. All very nice.
When I headed out to visit the James Martin Leeds Kitchen recently, my expectations were probably formed predominantly around my impressions of him on this show – the meal I ate should be classic, reassuring and ultimately, nice. Now, I should probably point out that despite putting his name and menu to the small restaurant based in Alea Casino in Clarence Dock, James Martin does definitely not reside in the kitchen. At no point during the meal did I see his cuddly face in the clean and compact kitchen, which you can peek into from the dining area and the street. So, my expectations of friendly reassuringness where probably quite unfounded.
Situated in the front of a casino, the vibe of this eatery is a little strange. It seems to have a fairly consistent flow of diners – unlike many shops in the area – but the ambience lies somewhere betwixt fishbowl and the hangout of an Italian mafia mob. This is the result of the very shiny monochrome decor and the large glass windows that look directly out onto passing Clarence Dock residents, who gawp straight back at you as you munch your way through Martin’s menu.
Strange surroundings aside, the staff at the restaurant made an excellent first impression. After passing through Casino security (extra Mafia vibe points) we were seated at the bar and quickly served some excellent cocktails. It was a balmy summer evening so we opted for a refreshing Mojito, which tasted superb. We were soon guided to a front row fishbowl seat, which I was secretly very pleased about as I love people watching.
The next fairly strange thing to happen was the presentation of the pre-meal bread, which came in a strange pop up sock contraption (not a popsock, just to be clear). Eating bread out of a fabric container really unnerved me; I kept thinking about the process required for washing the gadget, a process that would surely see crumbs amassing into a washing-machine destroying bread loaf with each and every wash. Also, the bread wasn’t great.
In a very rare turn of events, my dining partner and I decided to opt for a main course and dessert because I spied a particularly appealing pudding on the menu early. So, after a quick chat with our knowledgeable waiter and the ordering of some water for the table, we skipped straight to the main event.
I chose a warm goats curd and rocket tart with pickled vegetables and red pepper sauce (£12.95), which was beautifully presented . My dining partner plumped for the meatier option of Grilled Hayton Grange Farm Pork Chop with braised barlotti beans, feves, majoram and game chips £15.50 and we ordered some triple cooked chips (£3.25) that came in one of those neat carb cubes that chefs love to build.
The tart itself was beautiful – the pastry was buttery and crumbly and the gorgeous filling was oozing and tangy, rich and delicious. The spring onions that accompanied it were buttery and tasty, too. However, I did have a few grumbles – my pickled veg seemed to amount to half a carrot and there was merely a trickle of the sweet red pepper sauce. With the dish being so buttery and rich I could definitely have done with more of a sneeze of the sauce to help things down. The chips were top notch – crispy, light and fluffy in equal measures.
The pork seemed to excite some pleasing noises as it was eaten, though I was unable to photograph it as my dining partner became acutely embarrassed at my enthusiastic wielding of my new camera. Hmm, sad times. The main outcome of the main course was that I am now desperate to eat more goats curd, so I may be following the tips in this article from The Telegraph sometime soon. The excellent pastry also had me gagging for dessert, which signalled a double pastry whammy (and surely heartburn) for myself.
I’m a huge cherry fan, particularly black cherries, which is why I insisted on a dessert dinner (midweek too, naughty). The black cherry tart with cherry and almond ice cream (£6.25) was just too irresistible. When it arrived, the food was again neat and alluring on the plate, but the sponge itself wasn’t as moist as I would have hoped. Nonetheless, the ice cream was delicious, creamy and fruity and a rare treat for me as I try to avoid dairy.
The non-photographed chocolate and whisky butter pudding with single malt ice cream (£6.25) unfortunately failed to hit the spot. We were told upon ordering that it was James Martin’s signature dish, but as eating it fell to a non dessert lover it was admittedly up against it a bit. Though not a dessert lover, my dining partner is a lover of both white chocolate and whisky and was thus a little disappointed by the overpowering taste of the butter, which overwhelmed the white chocolate and whisky. That said, it was a butter pudding.
All in all, my impression of food at Leeds Kitchen was buttery, sweet and neat. Truth be told, we are becoming rather spoilt in Leeds for what we can eat within this particular price bracket or cheaper. My glorious feast at Hepworth’s Deli and now the arrival of Sukothai in the town centre means we are not short of exceptional mid-priced food choices. For this reason I doubt I will become a regular visitor at Leeds Kitchen, but thanks to the excellent service and beautiful cocktails there’s a good chance I might take the girls there for a bite to eat before a flutter on the roulette tables.