It might have his name above the door, but Marco’s New York Italian in Leeds is not quite the homecoming for the city’s most famous chef says Jill Turton.
It’s been an on-off rumour for years, that Leeds-born Marco Pierre White, Britain’s original rock ’n’ roll celebrity chef, would one day open a restaurant in Yorkshire where his star-spangled career began.
Now, 40 years after he left, he has done just that. Marco’s New York Italian is a glossy, 60-plus cover restaurant, expensively fitted out with upholstered bucket chairs and leatherette banquettes, reds and blacks, somewhere between plush and bling, all very shiny. And, along the walls, those defining black and white photographs of the gorgeous, long-haired, fag-smoking, knife-flashing enfant terrible of the kitchen in his White Heat prime.
The Marco story begins with the working class kid, half Tyke, half Italian, who left Allerton High without a qualification and knocked on the door of the gilded Box Tree in Ilkley asking for a job, going on to Le Gavroche and then fast-forwarding through the biggest names in the business: Mosimann, Ladenis, Koffmann and Raymond Blanc before opening Harvey’s and earning three Michelin stars, the first chef in Britain to do so, and at 33, the youngest anywhere.
The tabloids loved the wunderkind. He raised hell, started feuds, raced through two tempestuous marriages and boasted of running ‘the hardest kitchen in Britain’, famously reducing his protégé Gordon Ramsay to tears. But by 38 he had burned out, just as Roux/Blanc forewarned. He surrendered his stars, retired from the stove and retreated, so he claimed, to a quiet life in the country.
He did Hell’s Kitchen on ITV and turned up in the ad breaks plugging Knorr stockpots. Seeing him become Bernard Matthews’ brand ambassador for Turkey Twizzlers was the bottom rung of disillusion.
I met him once, a few years ago, when he visited the Box Tree, helping his old mucker Simon Gueller who owns it now, to celebrate 50 years as one of Yorkshire’s most illustrious restaurants. He was now a hulk of a man, taking up a great deal of space in the little cottage restaurant and not particularly interested in making friends with the fans who’d come to see him.
So, all in all, his name attached to a restaurant is not the lure it might be. The Leeds outfit at the Ibis Hotel is just another franchise to add to the other 15 New York Italians stretching from London Bridge to Stratford-upon-Avon, from Salford’s Media City to Birmingham Airport. Oh, and the 20 strong steakhouse chain, and the Bardolino’s pasta/pizza joints and the…
Of course, this isn’t Marco coming home at all. He hasn’t seen the place yet – he’s doing TV in Australia – but there’s a message from him on the menu telling us how New York Italian is his favourite kind of food and promising ‘casual, affordable dining’.
This comes in the form of a large wipe-clean laminated list of steaks, pasta, salads, and sharing boards. There’s calamari, crispy New York buffalo wings, sticky BBQ ribs and crunchy chicken goujons. Get the picture? I go for New Orleans crab cakes: my expectations are low but there’s plenty of crab and the required crisp coating served with a rémoulade sauce that is really a fiery mayonnaise.
There are numerous arguments over what makes a classic Caesar salad: with or without anchovies? Is avocado legit? Marco’s Caesar has both along with croutons, proper torn up scraps of bread, fried in olive oil with good intentions of textual contrast with the little gem leaves but unfortunately delivered only slightly softer than pumice stone. A pity, elsewhere a decent creamy dressing and shavings of Parmesan worked well.
A small, single, tasty fillet of sea bream comes with fried, though this time too soft, new potatoes and caponata, the Sicilian sweet and sour agrodolce mix of aubergine, capers, tomatoes, sugar and vinegar.
By contrast the hickory smoked baby back ribs are the size of a cricket bat – 12 on a board, smothered, almost welded, in a rich, sticky sauce with sweet potato fries and coleslaw. Priced the same as the fish, you get far more for your £17.25.
I’m no expert on authentic good ole’ U.S. of A. ribs, but these tasted pretty darned fine. The pork was neither tough nor falling off the bone, but had just enough chew. There was smoke there, too, though whether it came from a bottle labelled ‘liquid smoke’ I couldn’t say. The sweet potato fries hit the spot and the coleslaw was crisp and tasted fresh.
A perfectly serviceable, fair value meal then but no more. In fact, if it didn’t have Marco on the name plate, it would be just another chain. And that’s what’s saddest about the journey of the boy from Leeds who became Britain’s most brilliant chef.
Marco’s New York Italian, Ibis Styles Leeds City Centre Arena, Wade Lane, Leeds LS2 8NJ. 0113 831 4530, mpwrestaurants.co.uk. Open: Monday to Sunday, 11.30am-11pm. Price: Dinner for two including wine and service £90.