Restaurant Review: Create, Leeds

SOME high-minded questions to consider over a sparkling aperitif. Can fine dining ever be an agent for social change? Can good food really be a force for good?

Look at Jamie Oliver and his “Fifteen” chain of restaurants, designed to give disadvantaged young people a much-needed break in life. Look at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and his campaigns to change the world by changing the way we eat. And now look at Create, Leeds’s newest culinary experience.

Create is a Leeds-based social enterprise; a not-for-profit organisation set up to help struggling people within the city. It began as a catering firm, employing homeless people to make sandwich platters and finger buffets for weddings and office parties. Within a year, it had expanded into first one and then a number of cafés, and then out from Leeds and into Bradford, Doncaster, the North East and beyond.

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But four years after it began, Create now finds itself moving into uncharted territory. The flagship restaurant which opened in Leeds this summer, staffed by homeless or ex-homeless people working alongside established professionals, ups the ante by several notches. Create is now competing against the best restaurants in Yorkshire’s largest city.

The early signs have been good. Sarah Dunwell, founder, chief executive and the driving force behind all this admirable enterprise, has focused on getting the fundamentals right first. Bring in one of the most celebrated chefs in Leeds, she reasoned, and secure one of the most prominent restaurant locations in the city, and the rest will surely follow.

So erstwhile-Conran protégé Richard Walton-Allen was poached from Harvey Nichols, after more than a decade as executive head chef at what is one of the city’s most exclusive locations; a coup indeed. He brought with him his talented head chef, Ed Lee, and work began at once on the renovation of the magnificent Atlas House, a grand old edifice on the corner of King Street which once housed gourmet pizzeria Croma and, more recently, Mediterranean restaurant Ego.

So far, so impressive. But the crunch question remains whether Create can actually deliver. No room for sentiment here, I’m afraid.

Happily, none is required.

By any measure this is an excellent restaurant, with cooking of the highest quality combined with a price list so unfeasibly affordable that the temptation will be to return again and again.

Those familiar with Atlas House will be well aware of what a marvellous space it offers. The cavernous, century-old insurance building splits across two levels, with a towering spiral staircase twisting through the middle and huge windows looking out across the city streets beyond. A cocktail bar for pre-dinner drinkers has been installed in one corner and an open-plan kitchen in another.

The overall impression is modern and informal, heightened by the pleasingly-bustling sounds and array of smells from the busy kitchen. There are plenty of attentive staff; a suited maître-d; plenty of diners, too. There is, to put it simply, a buzz about the place.

But it is upon opening the equally colourful menus that the real magic begins; Walton-Allen’s fingerprints are all over this assortment of seasonal delights.

A wonderfully-buttery potted shrimp starter is served with fresh watercress and several crispy salt cod fritters, perfectly judged in their density and texture. A goat’s cheese salad comes direct from the celebrated Yellison’s Farm in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, and is balanced thoughtfully by autumnal chunks of roasted squash and tiny slivers of crisped fried shallot.

A main course of Dales lamb cooked two ways is truly exceptional, the excellent slow-cooked main cut somehow outdone by the astonishing slices of gently-fried lamb’s liver which accompany them. This is meat to be savoured, every mouthful a delightful surprise. Dammit, I don’t even like liver.

An imaginative burger of beef and chorizo with homemade pickles and coleslaw is a great deal less subtle but is powerfully effective, though really requires sturdier support from the bakery department. Side dishes such as roast heritage potatoes in rosemary butter, and autumn cabbage with shallots and chestnuts, are simply essential.

The service is charmingly informal. We decide to share a dessert of soft meringue with lemon cream and blackberries – even on the dessert menu, seasonality abounds, with autumn trifle, cinder toffee and Yorkshire parkin all featuring. Our young waitress’s face lights up immediately at our choice. “Oh, that one’s fantastic,” she beams, with clear enthusiasm. What arrives is a huge slab of meltingly-delicious meringue, the sweet lemon curd played off carefully against the plump, tart blackberries. Honestly, I’d return for this alone. As mentioned, the pricing offers further encouragement on that front, with fixed-price two- and three-course lunches and dinners starting from just £10.95.

Create restaurant, 31 King Street, Leeds, LS1 2HL. Tel: 0113 242 0628;

Price: Three-course a la carte dinner for two including wine and service, £65.