Even as recently as five years ago if someone had suggested going on a tapas crawl through the centre of Leeds they would have been laughed out of the room. So it’s a sign of just how far the city’s culinary scene has come on since then that today you would almost be spoilt for choice.
OK, it might not be Bilbao or Barcelona, but you can eat very well in the city centre and for an hour or two at least transport yourself back to your summer holidays and the smell of chorizo sizzling in a pan and the distant rhythm of flamenco.
Tapas, or small sharing plates, is all the rage right now with even Italian, British and, shock horror, French restaurants copying the trend. But for me tapas is all about the flavours of Spain. It is to the Spanish what a Sunday roast is to us Brits and when done well it can elevate a few simple ingredients to a whole new level.
Pintura is part of this culinary revolution that has swept across the UK in the past few years. Since opening in March 2015, the restaurant, inspired by the food-loving Basque region, has established a reputation for taking traditional recipes and giving them a bold, modern twist.
Pintura means painting in Spanish and on its website it claims to offer a unique portrait of Basque pintxos and Spanish tapas, which in the wrong hands could easily become a case of the emperor’s new clothes.
The restaurant is spread across three floors and is a victory of smart design over limited space. With its bare brick, tiles and smart looking booths, it’s an equally inviting spot for a long lunch or a romantic evening meal. Throw in the fact it’s also home to a basement gin bar and, in theory, you have a winning recipe.
Pintura gets a big tick for service, too. Good service should be relatively straightforward but so often it isn’t, as you either get people trying too hard and constantly attempting to fill up your wine glass, or you get the “too cool for school” approach where you’re made to feel like you’re doing them a favour. At Pintura they’ve got it spot on.
Our waitress (Siobhan) was welcoming and helpful and when I pointed out I had a nut allergy she made a note of it and told the chefs, but did so without fussing. When we asked if we could have the food brought out in stages, rather than all at once (which can turn into bit of a bun fight), it was done as requested.
Then at the end when it came to dessert she let me know which ones I could have without any prompting. It’s simple things like this that can make a big difference.
You normally remember good service only if the food matches it and here it certainly did. A couple of £2.50 pintxos from the specials board got us going – first off was the tempura hake, a delicious morsel of fish expertly cooked in a light batter.
We followed this with two Iberico ham and goat's cheese pintxos (£2.50 each) from the main menu, along with some Spanish tomato bread, garlic and olive oil (£2.50).
Next up was a plate of acorn-fed Iberico ham (£14.95). Some of you may balk at paying this much for what is basically just a plate of ham. But you’d be wrong – it’s a bit like giving an Aston Martin the once over and saying “well, it’s just a car”.
When ham is this delicious and the wafer-thin shavings of salty and sweet meat melt on your tongue, it’s worth every penny in my book. A glass of fine Rioja and a plate of quality Iberico ham like this is as close to nirvana as food gets. If this had been my last mouthful I would have died a happy man. Thankfully for me (and no doubt my fellow diners, too) I didn’t.
A good meal ought to be a shared experience and part of the fun of tapas is taking your time over the food. It also allows you to adopt the “less is more” approach and try out a few different things. With this in mind, we opted for three interesting sounding dishes, starting with Scottish mackerel, Vermouth cure, orange and olives (£5.95), which was refreshing, unusual and above all tasty.
Next we got stuck into an Iberico pork steak, kale and smoked almonds (£9.95) (with the almonds cooked separately for my partner) which was a delight.
Last but certainly not least was a Basque-style risotto made up of orzo pasta, truffle and smoked Basque cheese. This is comfort food at its poshest and was an absolute triumph.
We still had room to share a delicious mousse de chocolate (£5.95) which was washed down with a glass of Chardonnay (£3.50) and Sauternes (£4.90).
The bill, including a bottle of the brilliant Don Jacobo Reserva (£38), came to £110. This isn’t cheap for an evening meal out, but when it lingers as long in the memory as this one has then it’s worth pushing the boat out.
If this is the best Spain has to offer then I say “viva España” and, more importantly, “viva Pintura”.
• Pintura, 1 Trinity Street, Leeds LS1 6AP; 0113 430 0915, pinturakitchen.co.uk. Open: Monday to Friday, 12pm to late; Saturday and Sunday, 10am to late.
DRINKS SELECTION 4/5