With Anthony Flinn on board, Elaine Lemm expected big things from the Black Swan, but it didn’t quite work out that way.
Back in the day as a teenager, when friends and I first ventured into Leeds city centre for a night out, my dad issued a severe warning. If he ever heard I had been in “certain” pubs, he would never let me out again. One of those on the list was the paradoxically named “Mucky Duck” (The White Swan) on Call Lane. Surprisingly, I never did go in – until now, an unmentionable number of years later.
The traditional old boozer is now the Black Swan and in the capable hands of Leeds publican Si Ord (famed for Sandinista, Blind Tyger and Smokestack) and backed by owner Shane Quigley. It is the kitchen though that grabbed my attention as the consultant chef is Tony Flinn, one of my favourite chefs. The food offering in Leeds is much poorer since Anthony’s and Piazza closed their doors. Though Tony is not at the stove here, his influence will be enough surely to make this place stand out from the rest. Or will it?
The much-needed refurbishment throughout the Swan is staggering and, as expected, bang on trend. The pared-back-stripped-down-industrialisation reveals bare bricks, pipework and old wood. The rough bench seating, church pews and scaffold tables may not suit everyone – I love them – but there are a few sofas if comfort is more your thing. Decoration is understated with old suitcases, quirky murals painted by local artists and enamelled metal ad signs.
The food and drink on offer reflect the pared-back style of the decor. There is no fuss, no pretension; even the menu comes on plain brown paper. There is no promise of molecular magic from Tony. Instead, just good solid grub and sourdough pizza from the shiny copper furnace in the ground floor bar.
Six starters, four platters (sausage, Ploughman’s, pie and veggie) and seven mains keep choosing simple. The wine list too is clear and concise and very carefully selected. The promise of a great white wine in a Rioja Blanco, from our waitress, was exactly that. Surprisingly, the wine is also reasonable for one of this quality at £16 a bottle or £4.20 for a large glass.
This year, for me, has not been the best for ordering one of my favourite starters: the prawn cocktail. I felt here though I would be in safe hands, but straight off, my expectation was challenged when faced with a dish of shell-on prawns. I have no problem shelling hot, fat, succulent fresh prawns but in a cocktail, if you don’t mind, don’t make me do the work. If I have to, then don’t send them out ice-cold, soft and mushy. I had serious considerations about putting these prawns anywhere near my mouth. I merely pushed the plate away. I could have wept. Once again, a simple dish had defeated the chef and seriously annoyed me.
Could the other choice of a black pudding, potato cake and duck egg redeem the disappointment of the cocktail? Unfortunately, my other half stabbing the potato cake repeatedly with his fork did not bode well.
“The pudding’s good, the egg OK but should the potato cake be this greasy?” he asked. No.
When we asked the waitress the same question, she said it was vinaigrette oozing out. What?
The prawns went back to the kitchen virtually untouched; the cake was left on the plate though he did eat the rest. In fairness to the kitchen, they sent profuse apologies and offered a complimentary cheese platter to make up for the disappointment. I thought it best to hold on that lest the rest of the meal turned out to be as poor as the starters.
Thankfully it didn’t.
The ploughman’s (£12.95) was a hefty plate groaning with a rather tasty hand-raised pork pie, Yorkshire ham hock, Yorkshire Blue and Wensleydale cheeses – provenance is important here. Apple, celery, bread, pickled onions and heirloom tomatoes rounded the plate off.
Pushing aside my earlier disappointment, I thought the pecorino and chestnut risotto was more than adequate. Not memorable, but it had the right balance of creaminess and texture, though it was a tad greasy from the cheese, and a few more chestnuts would have been welcome.
Puds fared well too. They were complimentary and came with a repeat of the earlier apologies. A Parkin cake with real custard was just the ticket and its warm spices and thick, silky custard cheered us up no end. On the recommendation of the same waitress who suggested the wine, came a chocolate trifle. Turned out this was a bit of a beast in a glass, with lovely fruits and a thick dark chocolate mousse. I battled on enjoying what I ate but in the end was defeated; it was simply too big for me.
The day-long offer at the Black Swan means it appeals to a wide customer base. A good swathe of those are discerning diners and will not tolerate the slip-ups we had to deal with on this occasion. They will only go elsewhere given that Leeds city centre is not without choice when it comes to real food.
With Anthony Flinn’s name attached to the kitchen, I expected more, and I suggest many others will too. So, come on chefs, you need to do better.
• The Black Swan, 37 Call Lane, LS1 6DT. Tel: 0113 827 2349, www.blackswanleeds.co.uk. Open daily, 11am to 2am.