Empire Cafe, Leeds: We tried out the former greasy spoon loved by food critic Jay Rayner

Jill Turton traces 140 years of Leeds’s food history as she finallychecks out the Empire Cafe following its transformation from the coffee bar and greasy spoon scene.

Sometimes, and because Yorkshire is our patch, we are contacted by restaurant reviewers on the national papers looking for a recommendation or to verify a place before they leap on the LNER and brave the frozen North.

But not this time. Jay Rayner, of The Observer, who to be fair, frequently comes to Leeds, his alma mater, wrote a glowing review of the Empire Café. It was a restaurant that had passed me by, but when friends raved about it too, I just had to go and see what the fuss was about.

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So, if by chance you have read about the Empire Café in the Observer look away now though it’s a story worth retelling, especially if you want to know who is cooking Reblochon pastel de nata with chestnut puree in a little ginnel off Briggate, or serving an éclair filled with chicken liver parfait, blood orange and pancetta, in a café that has been feeding Leodians since 1884, because the Empire Café is fabulous.

Empire Cafe 6 Fish street, Leeds, Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon HulmeEmpire Cafe 6 Fish street, Leeds, Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
Empire Cafe 6 Fish street, Leeds, Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme

First, you need to find it. Fish Street is tucked away just off Briggate and behind what used to be Debenhams. The story goes that Sam Pullan and his partner Nicole Deighton had taken the lease on what had been a ‘60s coffee bar and greasy spoon cafe called La Strega.

When they pulled down the old sign, they found beneath it a lovely old ghost sign for the Empire Café. That settled the name, but they were intrigued by the little café’s history and further research turned up an old photograph of the place with a pig’s carcass hanging outside.

It was from the days when the streets and yards around Fish Street were part of the butcher’s Shambles, a collection of slaughterhouses, pubs, warehouses and common lodging houses, right in the heart of the city.

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But by the end of the 19th century, the city fathers had big ambitions for Briggate and no longer wanted live animals brought into the city and blood running down the street as carcasses were butchered in plain sight of passers-by.

King cabbage with apple, garlic labneh alleppo. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon HulmeKing cabbage with apple, garlic labneh alleppo. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
King cabbage with apple, garlic labneh alleppo. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme

In 1898 there was a grand plan to widen Briggate. The slaughterhouses were moved to a new abattoir behind Kirkgate Market, old buildings were swept away to make way for hundreds of new shops and the County and Cross Arcades were created along with the Empire Palace Theatre, after which, the modest little Empire Café is assumed to have been named.

Based on its past I had somehow expected a homely little caff. Not a bit of it. It is tiny but very smart with banquettes and high stools, the back-lit bar sparkling with glassware and men with beards mixing dainty cocktails.

Beyond the bar you can spy the kitchen with its ‘Wall of Flame’ rotisserie where dozens of chickens are turning, and below them, the ‘schmaltz’ spuds getting a basting from the fat and juices dripping from the rotating chickens. There are charcoal embers back there somewhere too.

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Rather than dangle from a bar stool, three of us head downstairs to a black windowless room, and if that sounds gloomy, it really is not. The walls are full of vibrant Egon Schiele prints, each table has its downlight. It’s compact but cosy and very inviting.

The menu is divided into two halves. Those spit-roast chickens – half or whole are given a herby rub and a choice of ‘lather’ which might be yuzu and ginger or smoked garlic and honey. We played safe with garlic, lemon and tarragon.

We’ve all had roast chicken before, but this surpassed expectations with its crisp skin and juicy, tender flesh and it comes with those schmaltz potatoes. Don’t expect crisp roasties these are soft from the chicken juices but banging with flavour.

But it’s the other half of the menu where the real distinction lies. A series of small plates to be taken as a starter or a selection to share. Charred king cabbage has been cooked over charcoal ‘lathered’ with oil and Aleppo pepper and served with cool soft labneh and apple puree. A fried duck egg is simply that, but on the side is a ragu of tomato, crab meat and toasted breadcrumbs. It’s a mouthful of pure joy.

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The kitchen here is out to have fun. Whoever thought that combining Reblochon cheese with a sweet Portuguese pastel de nata, was onto something. Its glistening caramelised top and crunchy pastry base is straight out of Lisbon, but then adding Reblochon cheese is a revelation. It may sound whacky, and so it is. It shouldn’t work but it does, and for good measure, they add a swirl of chestnut puree to the plate.

The madness continues, with an éclair of choux pastry filled with duck liver parfait and crispy pancetta then given a glaze of soft jammy blood orange. It looks like a jewelled and lacquered scarab beetle. It’s just as bonkers and delicious as the last dish.

These dishes may well have changed by the time you get there, but try the ‘truffle pork’ if it’s on because it’s terrific.

The Pluma cut of pork, is I’m told, the tender part of the loin. It’s been seasoned and cooked simply over charcoal and served with the most sumptuous dumpling of crusty brown crumb and a filling of Lincolnshire Poacher cheese then served with a sauce made from the juicy chicken stock, lemon juice and treacle. It's got that magnificent depth of flavour that marries with the pork and the dumpling and for a final flourish, they add a crisped-up leaf of black cabbage. It’s definitely a sharing plate worth fighting over.

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To finish, a slice of sesame cake is topped with dark chocolate ganache and hazelnuts, so far so conventional, but then they fill a crater on the top with a puddle of olive oil. Does it work? Of course it does, just like everything at this clever little caff.

Welcome 5/5

Food 5/5

Atmosphere 5/5

Prices 5/5

Empire Café, 6 Fish Street, Leeds LS1 6DB, www.empirecafeleeds.co.uk.Open: Wed-Fri 8am-11pm, Saturday, 9am-11pm.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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