I’m sitting in Fettle, a cafe on Great George Street, opposite Leeds General Infirmary, and it occurs to me as I read the menu – Swedish meatballs, miso glazed salmon, five spice duck – while devouring a plate of roast padron peppers, how eclectic British restaurant food has become.
Take a look at the ingredients in just one dish: salt beef on matcha, pesto waffle with buraczki and poached egg. It’s an international roll call that brings together New York salt beef (or arguably Jewish north Leeds), Japanese matcha, American waffles, Italian pesto and Polish buraczki – beetroot, horseradish and sour cream. Five countries of origin or six depending on whoever invented poached eggs so you can’t put a name to the cuisine, other than delighting that Britain, unlike parochial France for instance, has brought the world to our plate.
Fettle has been open just over a year, establishing itself as a relaxed place for breakfast, brunch and lunch. Then three months ago they began opening in the evenings – Thursday to Saturday with BYO drink and calling themselves Fine at Fettle.
Thankfully, the Fine bit doesn’t mean tweezered food and doll’s-house portions, as they explain: “It’s just different table settings, dimmed lights and table service. It’s Fettle but a bit smarter.” It hasn’t entirely stopped them buying into the fine dining trope with a little taster of cashew and pomegranate cream and some crunchy veg served in a jar, but I accept and enjoy the gesture.
The guys behind this bold menu are Simon Hawkins and Kamil Wangin. Kamil, front of house, is half Norwegian, half Polish with an accent you could cut with a cleaver and charm to spare. Whether the kitchen can pull off this salmagundi of ingredients depends on their instincts for combining all these tastes and textures into coherent dishes.
The answer is broadly yes, although the first course is not entirely convincing. Smoked mackerel pâté topped with a layer of kumquat marmalade. Smoked fish and jam? Two ingredients that don’t quite gel for me. Once you get through the jam, the pâté is good, though the dark nutty bread served alongside is rather sad – it’s too chewy and dry.
Here’s another involved starter: curried waffle, cardamom pickled cauliflower and gochujang miso cream. Personally I’ve never really got waffles, but here they provide an effective vehicle for mopping up the delicious Korean sauce. Gochujang, a chilli paste, is new to me, and in truth I’m not getting much chilli, but the soothing, sweet umami of white miso, a recent discovery in my kitchen, is a triumph here. I enjoy the cauliflower pickle, too, sharp and vinegary with a kick of cardamom. In all, it’s a fine little dish.
The kumquat jam that I took exception to in the pâté turns up again with the five spice duck and here it works a treat adding a beautiful bitter-sweetness to the duck and the accompanying sweet potato and ginger mash.
Pumpkin and sage tortelloni with sunblushed tomatoes and cashew cream was the least involved of all our dishes but the sage holds its own against the pumpkin in tender pasta parcels. We were recommended a side dish of raw kohlrabi and beetroot. It was great for texture, though it would have been more enjoyed if the vegetables had been finely sliced.
Kamil, who wafts between tables, kneeling beside us or sitting down on a spare chair, talks us through desserts. Pear poached in red wine with maca granola and dairy or non-dairy ice cream.
The pear is very pleasant. Granola and ice cream feels a bit like my granola and yoghurt breakfast even without the maca, which as I’m sure you know is a root vegetable from Peru ground to a powder that claims to cure everything from cancer to stress.
The hazelnut and chocolate baklava is no looker, but once the spoon goes in the pastry cracks into feathery wafers with a Nutella-like hazelnut and chocolate mix balanced by a sweet/savoury cream of peanut and raspberry chia jam. It’s another winning Fettle dish, lots of which are vegetarian, vegan and gluten- free, if that’s your thing.
After three enjoyable courses we sit back on the rather gorgeous upholstered chairs – a bit Scandi, a bit retro and star of the tasteful minimal decor at Fettle.
I order silver needle white tea from the long list of hot and cold drinks. It’s a delicate tea with proper leaves, served in a china cup on a little wooden tray.
That tray is just one small detail that makes Fettle such a charmer. I like the scale of the place, too, a sensible five choices per course and just 30 covers split by a mezzanine floor.
Great George Street, much like North Street and New Station Street, all off the main thoroughfares, are where the independents of Leeds are making the city’s most interesting food right now. Add Fine at Fettle to the list. I left it well fed and thoroughly unstressed. Maybe there’s something to that maca root.
Fine at Fettle, 73 Great George Street, Leeds; 0113 244 3838, www.fettle.cafe; open Thursday to Saturday, 6pm-10pm; three-course dinner for two including service, £65.