Aperitivo is chef/owner Luke Downing’s latest opening in West Park in the Leeds ‘burbs. For years it was Dough, a popular, award-winning neighbourhood bistro offering up French food. It’s in an odd spot, neither Kirkstall nor Headingley, squeezed on to the end of a parade of shops.
It’s been totally refurbished; the chunky wooden furniture has gone, replaced by tan leather booths, black tables and velvet chairs and there’s a lot of bronze and copper, a smart black and white harlequin tiled marble floor and some cool tunes.
I wasn’t Dough’s number one fan, but I love Vice & Virtue, Downing’s fine dining restaurant in a former strip club. Aperitivo is the result of extensive research in Italy; Downing’s brought a cicchetti concept to Spen Lane – are we going to be lulled into an Italian frame of mind on a freezing January night?
Well the place is certainly warm enough and the smiling welcome helps. It’s empty but for two people drinking coffee and eating pizza, but we’re shown to the smallest table in the room, barely bigger than a dustbin lid. There are empty, good-looking padded booths, but when I ask to sit there I’m told they’re booked.
There’s barely room for a couple of glasses of wine let alone ‘sharing plates’ so the waiter gives in and moves us to a slightly bigger table in the corner, which rocks. You might think I’m being petty, but trust me on this, if the food’s great you don’t even notice wonky tables.
The menu reads well, even if, like me, you’re slightly weary of small plates. Here it’s neither tapas nor the portion you’d get in a three-course meal. Downing ticks all the ‘local/free range/organic’ boxes. But you don’t have to go the whole hog; there’s a Stuzzichini (‘snacks’) list which includes Tuscan chips, marinated artichokes and tapenade with truffle oil, perfect with a ‘signature’ cocktail – I love the sound of Yorkshire Lass, made up of Death’s Door gin, lemon, rhubarb and white chocolate – or a glass of wine from the meticulously researched list – the Orso Bruno lives up to its billing.
Back to the main menu. In the pesce section there’s a classic fritto misto (£7.50), salmon cured in beetroot (£6.50) and pan fried sea bass (£8) which is nicely cooked, with a crispy skin and served on whisper-thin slices of fennel, tiny capers and a couple of ‘heritage’ tomatoes.
Next up, carne, and we can’t resist the giant meatball (£7). It arrives on a slick of deeply flavoured tomato sauce and is uncooked in the middle. When I ask for it to be cooked through I’m told “this is how we serve it, but of course I’ll ask chef”.
As far as I’m aware mince should never be pink. A correctly cooked version arrives shortly and is fine, if under-seasoned. Lack of salt is a theme that runs through these dishes.
Elsewhere in the meat section you’ll find the likes of Italian style black pudding with duck egg, porketta with wet polenta and beef bavettes (£9.50), which shows great promise. It looks great, the Jerusalem Artichoke puree is a fabulous pairing and I loved the crispy leek matchsticks. But again, it needs something. (Strokes chin; can I put my finger on it?) Oh yes. SALT.
We’ve been advised that two dishes each will be enough but it’s us, so three it is. Bucatini (pasta poached in Chianti, and looks like those liquorice shoelaces you had as a kid) with scallops and a quail egg is decent enough, but far and away dish of the day is venison ragu with pappardelle pasta. The ragu is sticky and dark and has such depth of flavour it makes my head spin. Bring everything else up to this standard and we’re talking.
Veggies and vegans will be pleased, with a choice of nine plates including stuffed peppers, Tuscan bean stew and baked mushrooms. Pizzas are handmade.
Dolce then. A Tiramisu ‘made today’ is one 10th alcohol-soaked sponge and nine tenths whipped cream. My pistachio and almond frangipane has a lovely texture but is, ultimately, tasteless.
It’s all just a bit lacklustre and timid. There is skill in the kitchen, someone knows how to cook, but a judicious pinch of salt will go a long way. And the busy booths? They remained empty.
Aperitivo, 293 Spen Lane, Leeds LS16 5BD. 0113 278 7255, aperitivoleeds.co.uk
Meal for two with two glasses of wine £61.50. Open: Tuesday to Saturday 5–11pm