Everything pre-pandemic feels like a decade ago, but in reality it’s about three years since I spent the best part of a day in Kirkgate Market roaming the isles and reacquainting myself with the wonders of the fish, meat and veg stalls. I met a Leeds chum and had a good lunch in what was then Liz Cottam’s “pub”, the Owl, a repurposed shed painted black inside and out.
After we’d eaten we nipped across the aisle to a cute caff – the signage, Owt, caught my eye and we sat with a coffee and chatted to Esther Miglio, the smiley French proprietor.
Her English partner James Simpson was in the tiny kitchen cooking up the likes of shakshuka, pork loin and pumpkin seeds and deep-fried cauliflower and squash – a limited range but boy it looked good – robust and wholesome. Unlike markets in most European cities where you can perch on high stools at a stall grazing till the small hours, Kirkgate closes at 5.30pm, so Esther and James jumped at the chance to relocate to the Corn Exchange for more space and generous hours.
You know what happened next. Almost as soon as they’d arrived, they had to shut. However, they came up with a Covid-safe scheme: customers ordered food online and collected it from wicker baskets lowered from the first-floor windows, which gives you an idea of this couple’s ingenuity.
I turned up with the same chum for lunch a couple of weeks ago and things are very much on the up and it’s all looking settled and sweet – Esther is darting around seating diners inside the stylish, light, airy room but it’s tempting to take one of the tables under the extraordinary Corn Exchange domed roof, the design of which was based on that of the Bourse de
Commerce in Paris, proving that the marriage of French and Yorkshire culture is serendipitous. Wherever you choose to seat yourself, the menu is as eye-catching as the building, if slightly more modest.
There are half a dozen or so dishes you could call “mains” and a handful of sides, including tenderstem broccoli which has been shown the pan with the lightest touch; with just butter, salt and lemon juice, it’s the perfect accompaniment to a chicken burger that has zero resemblance to anything found in KFC. What we have here is juicy organic chicken in faultless batter and a brioche bun from the fabulous Bondgate Bakery in Otley, where all their bread is sourced. Sausage egg and chips has another guise too; herby bangers from Sykes House Farm in Wetherby, fried spuds and a soft boiled egg, all topped with pea shoots and pickles – it’s a gloriously hearty dish packed with flavour.
The softest, creamiest hummus arrives next, on a fat slice of lightly toasted rye, topped with a tangle of sharply dressed carrot salad, another soft egg and coriander sauce. I would get on a train from Halifax every day just for this. There’s quite a lot of fermenting and pickling going on, as is the trend, and the spicy cabbage is a belter.
Elsewhere you’ll find split pea dhal, a warm salad of crispy spuds with endives, red onion and green sauce and triple cooked chips. Book on Thursday nights for a classic steak dinner (with frites, green salad, aji verde, £18) or a pakora burger (£10) and a wine-tasting session. Chateau Gasqui is biodynamic wine imported from Gonfaron, Provence, and is made by Francois Miglio, who just so happens to be Esther’s dad so you know, nepotism but the best kind.
James hasn’t had any formal training but he’s done time in kitchens up and down the country, and as a chalet cook in the French Alps. During summer breaks from university he worked in the kitchens at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships before moving to Leeds and cooking for the Real Junk Food Project in Armley and at the Brunswick. He and Esther met at a music festival in France (when he’s not behind the stove, he’s behind a drum kit) and they returned together to the UK. It was clearly a match made in heaven; they’ve just got hitched.
Esther recommends Rosie’s double chocolate brownie, but who is going to turn down the chance of chocolate chip bread and butter pudding? Not me. Oh my word. It’s a pillow of perfection, feather-light and innocent looking enough but boy does it mean business.
OWT is effortlessly cool and the vibe is warm – Esther’s Gallic charm will knock your socks off; her Provencal upbringing and James’ natural ability in the kitchen has shaped their seasonal, bistro-style food. The appeal of the cooking lies in its simple honesty; here’s friendly food that doesn’t over strive, it’s just good ingredients, intelligently cooked with due respect paid to the produce. Swing by for one or two plates and a glass of Cuvée Roche d’Enfer. And that bread pudding of course.
Owt, Unit C12A&B Leeds Corn Exchange, Call Lane, Leeds LS1 7BR, 0113 247 0706, www.owtleeds.com