Restaurant review: Fourth Floor Café & Bar, Harvey Nichols, Leeds

Confit salmon in lemon and thyme oil served with warm nicoise salad and shaved fennel.
Confit salmon in lemon and thyme oil served with warm nicoise salad and shaved fennel.
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Harvey Nichols has unveiled its new look Fourth Floor Café & Bar. Amanda Wragg finds out if it lives up to the setting.

A king’s ransom has been spent on a complete refurbishment of the Fourth Floor Café & Bar at Harvey Nicks, now in its 17th year. Blimey, it seems like 10 minutes since it opened with much fanfare, promising northern shoppers the ultimate retail experience. Certain pockets of Leeds’ society have always treated the top floor as a caff – it’s where you go when you’re Prada’d-out; for the rest of us it’s a twice-yearly treat, a place to get got up for, and in my case wearing blinkers in order to avoid temptation on the journey from the ground floor through Jo Malone, Agent Provocateur and Nicole Farhi.

It’s still a treat, full of old time glamour. The PR blurb tells us that “world famous interior designer Shaun Clarkson has brought his sophisticated vision to the space ... fusing contemporary with classic, taking customers from day to night in a sweep of luxury”. It’s certainly a bit of a show-stopper, all done out in brass and teal leather with giant arching metallic shades and columns clad in bronze mirror. There are a lot of mirrors. Huge hexagonal ones on the walls. And the table tops in the bar? Mirrored, which does nothing to conceal the extra chins one seems to grow after 50, so we six women of a certain age gasp as one as we slide into a booth and sit with our backs unnaturally straight.

Despite the full-on finish, it’s comfortable and somehow inclusive regardless of the number of burnished, buffed and prepped clientele elegantly sipping Prosecco. The cheery staff have a lot to do with the feel of the place. Service throughout is efficient, sat-back, non-invasive and almost man-to-man marking, but the cooking is patchy.

Both the a la carte and the set menu (three courses for £20, ostensibly good value) look interesting, with a number of dishes that set pulses racing. Fashionably, there are five choices for starters and mains on the carte, three on the set menu, which we’ve gone for.

Chef Paul Cunliffe (local lad who walked into Richard Walton Allen’s shoes with gusto two years ago) is no slouch, bringing 14 years of experience from some top end eateries. The Fourth Floor has an open kitchen, there’s no sign of him and I’m disappointed. I’ve eaten Cunliffe’s food in a previous life and the lad can really cook; classically trained, he’s developed a sophisticated but playful style.

It’s a Tuesday night, and busy. One uncomfortably long wait between courses has nothing to do with the waiters and everything to do with some drama unfolding in the kitchen. Dishes are wildly inconsistent. One defies logic. Another is exquisite. A couple are very good and there’s a spectacular miss.

Spring pea and mint risotto with salt cod fritter and parmesan crisp is dish of the day for me, a delightful bright green puddle in the bottom of a huge white bowl, the fritter suitably salty (though not particularly fishy) but crispy and the parmesan crisp even crispier. English asparagus with hazelnuts (the accessory du jour and a bit redundant in this dish), Pickering watercress and poached hens’ eggs finds the spears woody at one end and soggy at the other; a hard trick to pull off. “But the egg is perfect” trills the eater. I should hope so. If they can’t poach an egg at Harvey Nicks we’re all going to hell in a handcart.

Confit salmon in lemon and thyme oil, warm nicoise salad and shaved fennel looks and tastes good but is it confit? Three of us have it and in unison say “nice, but poached”. It’s a dish any of us could knock out any night of the week and we don’t have to apply double lippy and heels and schlepp into town for it.

Our non-meat eating mate isn’t thrilled with her offering; chicory, basil and roquette pesto tarte fin with tomato fondue, which has all the above in it or round it but just looks dull and tastes dreary. Here’s the regular rant; why is it so hard to produce interesting vegetarian food? A month or so ago I reviewed Dandelion & Burdock, a vegan place in Sowerby Bridge, and any of chef David Wilson’s plates of food would have graced HN’s table.

Beef flat iron steak (it’s a cut from the shoulder, once known as top blade) is perfectly judged, the marbled meat smoky, tender and pink – a triumph. The Yukon Gold mashed spuds have a week’s recommended salt intake in two mouthfuls but reminds me that salt makes food taste really good.

Sides include the best fat chips I’ve ever had the pleasure to neck – more salt, this time smoked and a dish of golden aioli to dip them in, and Chantenay carrots; sweet, crunchy and lathered with fennel, honey and buttermilk which proves too subtle for my palate.

Desserts are a disaster: Peach Melba Eton mess is deconstructed, rendering it completely pointless. Elderflower custard tart is pleasant enough but the elderflower’s barely detectable. What does smack you round the chops though is a big dark green blob of basil “espuma”, violently over-flavoured and not espuma at all; it kicks the delicate elderflower not only out of the park but into the next town.

The wallet-lightening house red, a Corbiere is soft, fruity and quaffable but the white Bordeaux punches below its weight. Call me a Yorkshirewoman but £20 for a bottle of house wine is on the steep side. Prices climb vertiginously from this point.

But there are sublime views over the city at dusk and despite the amount of metal in the room there’s no clatter and we can all hear one another. There’s a warm, friendly buzz in the air and enough good things to eat to tempt us back. As we go to press, Paul Cunliffe has left the building to seek pastures new.

Fourth Floor Café & Bar, Harvey Nichols, 107-111 Briggate, Leeds LS1 6AZ. 0113 204 8000, www.harveynichols.com