Dining rooms in big city hotels are often impersonal - corporate by definition and sometimes a bit snooty. The space here is stylish and vast with floor to ceiling glass walls affording great views onto the water, which is scenic but might create a chilliness that no amount of heating could combat.
The floors are wooden too, which wouldn’t necessarily help. But despite all this the vibe they’ve created is classy and cosy. Looking out on a clear spring night with lights reflecting on water, it’s easy to imagine oneself somewhere other than the Leeds Canal Basin.
It’s only been a matter of months, but head chef Leah Jensen has more than filled her predecessor’s boots. Trained by Gary Rhodes, Richard Corrigan and Paul Heathcote (and she’s only 30: did she start in the kitchen when she was nine?) Leah’s authoritative, quietly clever style impresses. Every plate that came out was well calibrated (with just one caveat). Even the tricky dishes.
This is fine dining by stealth: thick white napkins, gleaming glassware, mood lighting (rant alert) and waiters gliding silently. But somehow it’s not intimidating or over-formal. Perhaps it’s because said waiters are friendly and not remotely condescending, as can often be the case. Ours, Christopher from Lille responds smilingly to our quizzing him about where he’s from, is suitably familiar with the menu and able to respond to questions about how a dish is built and the provenance of the ingredients. These guys are properly briefed.
Several starters appeal: oxtail and foie gras ravioli, confit root vegetables, parmesan foam for one, Yorkshire Blue Bavarois too. But we go for the quail tart, pan roast goose liver, eggs and bacon, toasted hazelnuts, game vinaigrette, which is a collection of delicious components on a plate, not one of which has precedence over another: succulent, tender quail in a tiny pastry case with a blast of foie gras – just enough to gun the palate into gear. The nuts add texture, the dressing opulence, the whole thing topped with a miniature fried quail’s egg – like something from a doll’s house. Since we’re sharing this I would have liked more. But we’re grinning. Despite the Lilliputian portion there’s every chance this is going to be historic.
There’s no parsimony in Trio of Yorkshire Round Deer Farm venison, fillet, pie, venison and black pudding sausage, pomme anna, wild mushroom jus. Except perhaps in the jus department. A little brown jug full of it would have been grand. It’s all good but the tastiest part of this extravagant dish is the sausage. Man oh man it spoils you for your average “butcher’s best”. The tiny pie is cute, the pastry perfect. Buttered curly kale is an iron rich and sweet accompaniment.
My dill crusted grey mullet fillet, green beans, orange and shallot salad, mustard dressing delights. There are extraordinarily playful notes here, the fish moist and perfectly cooked, the citrus salad smacking me round the chops with its zinginess.
Fine dining it might be but they’re not above fish & chips (£13.95) and sausage and mash (or middle white pork and apple sausages with sage mash potatoes: £11.95); next time I’m going for “loose birds with sorrel, bacon and girolles”. It’s got my name on it.
There will be a next time, but only if they sort out the lighting. Whoever came up with idea of dipping lights at a certain point in the evening wants sacking. I think it’s to do with romance. Time to create a more intimate vibe? Turn the lights down. Eh? Take a look round the room and you’ll see several business types dining solo, a family, a couple of tables of friends and two lots of young women. Stop it, it’s an anachronism. We all just end up peering at each other through the gloom.
Generally speaking I avoid grey food: add liquorice to rice and what do you get? But all bets are off by this point. Pontefract liquorice rice pudding with candied clementine defies definition. But it’s possibly one of the most interesting tastes yet this year, and the silky texture makes us roll our eyes. With the added shard of sharp clementine it’s a revelation.
Ditto apple Tart Tatin, Dewar’s whisky ice cream, a deconstructed tart which again won’t win a beauty contest but delivers an ocean of taste. The fruit is buttery and sharp simultaneously with a tiny kick of something, the whisky providing a cranial hit which guarantees I won’t be forgetting this pudding in a hurry. Add to this heady mix two perfect miniature pistachio macaroons filled with rhubarb sorbet which explode in your mouth like Flying Saucers did in the 70s.
In fact that’s the point of this dinner; it’s utterly memorable. Rustic but simultaneously sophisticated. Not edgy or scary or too many cheffy flourishes. And the best bit? We jokingly asked Christopher if we could have the recipe for the rice pudding and instantly forgot about it. Ten minutes later, Leah appears from the kitchen with a copy printed off for us, takes time to chat and guess what? It’s rice, liquorice root, butter, milk and clementine. Deceptively simple.
It’s not cheap although they offer a “two courses for £15.50, three for £19.50” deal. The imaginative wine list soars from £17.95 to £100; add to that an automatic 10 per cent service charge and make sure your pockets are deep. But sometimes you’ve got to pay a bit extra for a meal you won’t forget. With or without lights.
Three course meal for two (with a shared starter), a large bottle of sparkling water (£4.25), bottle of Alto Bajo Sauvignon Blanc (£20) and 10 per cent service came to £90.37
City Café at Double Tree by Hilton, Granary Wharf, 2 Wharf Approach, Leeds LS1 4BR. 0113 241 1000; Open seven days a week, 5.30-10.