At Leeds’s original gastropub, Jill Turton finds a welcome change from the usual belly pork and mushroom risotto.
What have been the seminal, game-changing restaurants in Leeds down the years? There was Get Stuffed in the 1970s, arguably the first place to introduce the city to something more exciting than hotel fare or fish and chips.
You could cite Guy Martin-Laval’s impervious La Grillade. Or Brasserie 44 that ignited the Calls Quarter scene. Or, latterly, the sheer bravura of Anthony’s.
I’d also make a case for the historic significance of Reliance Bar and Dining Room. Back in 2000 while London was exploding with gastropubs and redefining informal eating out with robust British food and matching value, Leeds just didn’t seem to get the message. It took a southern emigré, Joss Ainsworth, to come up the M1 and, with his mate, John Gyngell, snaffle up a disused old caff on an unprepossessing corner of North Street.
They painted the exterior red, stripped the floors, introduced beers and food that were on nobody else’s menu, and behind those lovely, curving floor to ceiling windows created the leisurely vibe that marked the city’s very first gastropub. While commendable other followers have sprouted up like the Cross Keys, a Gyngell venture, and the Midnight Bell, the Reliance has always felt like the real deal.
I hadn’t been since they tore down a partition wall in their dark old back dining room last year to reveal more lovely arched windows and let in the light. Now it’s a fine space, wood floored with utility lamps, formica topped tables, odd chairs and a large open plan kitchen where head chef Simon Moxham and sous chef Tom Hunter labour in full view.
Their menu is far more ambitious than modern pub conventions: no belly pork, no fish cakes, no obligatory mushroom risotto for the veggies, but dishes that would stand their ground against any upwardly mobile neighbourhood restaurant. The spring selection had crab soup with croutons, gruyere and rouille; oyster mushrooms, spinach and smoked garlic cream on toasted onion soda bread and for mains; crispy mutton breast, garlic puree, spring cabbage and mutton reduction or aubergine and borlotti bean tagine with spiced almonds, fennel flat bread and spiced yoghurt.
There’s also an unmistakable preponderance of pork products: ham hock terrine; Gloucester old spot pork chop; cheek, shoulder and trotter of pork and nine-month aged ham; all because they do their own charcuterie. Impressively, they buy a whole pig and make salami, coppa, lomo, chorizo, pancetta, whole hams cured for nine months and brawn from the pig’s head. That’s going some for such a seemingly laid-back outfit. They sell it in the bar to take home, at Headingley Farmers’ Market and even to specialist outlets like Friends of Ham on New Station Street.
If we’d known all this beforehand we might have gone for the charcuterie board, instead we had the sardines with raisins, an unusual sweet and savoury marriage, but my partner lapped it up, mopping up the juices with their excellent bread. I went for leek and Wensleydale cheese beignets: crisp little breadcrumbed parcels oozing cheese and leek with a nicely dressed beetroot and apple salad on the side.
A note about the drinks. Their wine is fine, indeed more original than most, but it is their beer and lager list that has to be one of the most exciting in the North. By the half, we travelled dizzily from the Great Heck Brewing Company near Goole via their own Reliance Best from Barnsley’s Acorn Brewery to San Francisco’s classic draught Anchor Steam.
For mains a straight-up juicy Gloucester old spot pork chop served with a silky celeriac mash confirmed the promise of pork at its flavoursome best. My cod wrapped in pancetta with a stew of tomato and a borlotti beans was a lovely loin, accurately cooked but without a trace of pancetta… or so I thought. Our waiter, who it turned out, was the general manager, reported back that the pancetta had been cut so thin it had melted into the fish. Hmm. He could see my sceptical look so when the next dish of cod was about to go out, he called me to the pass to show me. I didn’t disbelieve them, but I still contest if you can’t taste it and can’t see it, there’s not much point in it being there. Credit though to them for handling it all so affably.
No disagreements about the lemon Eton mess with grapefruit. There’s nothing too taxing about Eton mess but many fail to get the proportions of cream, to fruit to meringue just right. Here they’d clinched it.
I really like the Reliance. You can go in solo for a sandwich and a coffee with the newspaper or you can book a long table for a convivial party. You won’t go into triple-dip recession either; no main courses – apart from steak – go over the £13 mark. They take the trouble; you take your ease.
The Reliance, 76-78 North Street, Leeds LS2 7PN. 0113 295 6060, www.the-reliance.co.uk.
Open: Monday to Wednesday, noon-5pm and 5.30pm-10pm; Thursday to Saturday, noon-5pm and 5.30-10.30pm; Sunday, 11am-4pm and 6pm-9.30pm. Price: Approx. £25 plus wine and coffee.