I’ve eaten at the Owl three times now, all of them in very different circumstances. The first was back in 2019 when the (business) partnership of Liz Cottam (ex- MasterChef and Great British Menu contestant) and Mark Owens (ex-Box Tree) were extending their portfolio from Home, their fine dining restaurant, to open the Owl, the first pub for Leeds’s Kirkgate Market. To call it a pub was to undersell it. It was all fabulous.
The next time, the Owl visited me. I ordered one of their [email protected] dinners during lockdown. It came, beautifully packaged, carefully labelled and with around 26 different sachets and detailed instructions for “plating”. No surprise when the next morning I discovered sachet 21 still in the fridge. How did the Owl suddenly become so much more dainty than my memories of Kirkgate Market?
My third visit was at the Owl’s new site at Lockside, on the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool canal in the regenerated Mustard Wharf. It’s a big, cool, contemporary space – you know the style, polished concrete, wooden tables, Scandi chairs and dozens of their trademark cane lampshades. If it wasn’t raining, we’d be taking an aperitif outside on the towpath.
It’s a great location, a quiet retreat in the heart of the city but hidden from the noise and the bustle.
We opted for the four-course “Early Supper” menu at £42 (though with quite a number of £6 supplements) which sounds reasonable value in these inflationary days.
We begin with delightful snacks: a teeny, salty broth with seaweed and almonds and a tart of goat’s cheese and beef along with fine-looking bread rolls, made shiny with a malt extract glaze. A choice of four starters brings us a salad of tomato and goat’s cheese and if you think you’ve seen that before, try Owens’s take on it. A delicate goat’s curd is topped with flavoursome and peeled, yellow and red Isle of Wight tomatoes that have been filled with a sort of tomato essence, then bathed in a fabulous tomatoey, umami broth.
But it’s the crab custard that is the winning dish. A shallow bowl is filled with a puffed-up golden pillow of brown crab meat while beneath it, a kind of savoury trifle made with the citrussy/herbal flavour of eucalyptus – something I’ve never knowingly tasted before – then pickled pear and brown butter mousse. It’s a totally unlikely combination that works splendidly.
At mains there is a generous fillet of wood pigeon served with vibrant yellow and red beetroot and a filo pastry cigar filled with fruit and nuts. But it’s the Gigha halibut, the farmed halibut, reared on the Isle of Gigha (pr. Gee-ah), off the west coast of Scotland, that wins me over. The fish are grown in low-density inshore tanks, fed organically and are disease-free and sustainable. Chefs love it and it’s easy to see why; lovely white, flaking fish, tender and sweet and, with wild halibut under threat, this feels like a good alternative. Here Owens allows the fish to shine, serving it simply with a selection of mushrooms: raw, pickled, barbecued and a side of rich mushroom and miso sauce. It’s a sharply intelligent dish. The gentle rain of our arrival is now bouncing off the towpath and creating great ripples in the canal. It doesn’t feel much like summer but the baked cheesecake with raspberry ice cream feels every bit a summertime dish. A dense chocolate pavé is prettily served with all kinds of ginger including ginger ice cream and a kick of pink peppercorn.
But then Owens tears up the rule book with a slab of rye cake – a sort of Yorkshire parkin flavoured with Guinness, mace and fennel, then topped with Yorkshire honey, summer truffle and a perfectly ripe slice of Tunworth cheese oozing over the cake like Vesuvius. It leaves us all deliberating whether it is dessert or cheese, sweet or savoury. The answer is both. And do we like it? Too rich for one and too heavy for another, but for anyone like me who loves a sweet/savoury combo, it succeeds.
The Owl in its new home has proved itself a smart restaurant – modern British food with added bells and whistles. The Cottam/Owens partnership and the trio of Home, Cora and now the Owl have brought to the city three outstanding restaurants, all of them different, each in a great location, (fairly) reasonably priced with clever menus beautifully cooked. You can hardly ask for more… unless it’s for Mr Crab fish pie and apple crumble to follow.
The Owl, Lockside, Mustard Wharf, Mustard Approach, Leeds LS1 4EY, 0113 531 6621. www.theowlleeds.co.uk. Open: Wednesday, 5-11pm, Thursday to Saturday, 12-11pm, Sunday, 12-5pm. Price: dinner for two, including, bottle wine and service, £100.