Restaurant review: Flawless French translation

Onglet with bacon, mushrooms, garlic mash. Picture by Bruce Rollinson
Onglet with bacon, mushrooms, garlic mash. Picture by Bruce Rollinson
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Tucked away in the heart of Leeds, Elaine Lemm discovers a place showcasing French cooking at its best.

Having both lived and worked in France for seven years, I have a distinct fondness for their food. With due respect, I should say that overall their food is not all it’s cracked up to be. As here in Britain, there is both good and bad food but overall, good rules.

The palpable French disdain for our food, however, will always foil any long-lasting entente cordiale. How well I remember that without exception, on every visit to my butcher in France, as he handed over my meat, he would shake his head and sigh. His plead with me to not cook comme les anglais would accompany me to the door. You would think he had just sold me one of his children. Nevertheless, their willingness to bring one of their major sporting events to Yorkshire makes me think things are a-changing. So what of our interpretation of their food here?

At best, the food will be directly translated from classic French and devoid of anglicised twiddles, fiddle and foams. At worst, it has all three.

Choosing a restaurant to visit for this review was not easy; there are hardly any truly French ones left in Yorkshire. Many claim to be; few are. Kendells Bistro in Leeds drew the short straw for my scrutiny, though in fairness I had heard great reports.

The bistro is tucked up in a desirable location opposite the Leeds College of Music, adjacent to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, BBC Leeds and the new Northern Ballet Dance Theatre. It claims to be “a casual, informal place to dine” which rings true on first impressions. The dark (ish) candlelit interior gently sucks you in, so the commotion of city centre Leeds suddenly seems far away. Thankfully, the greeting is warmer and more effusive than you are ever likely to find in France – a welcome anglicisation.

The décor is slightly contrived French-Brocante but to my surprise, it works. Slowly, I began to feel ever so slightly wistful for times spent in Paris.

Unsurprisingly given the location, it is also hugely busy. This is helped along by a tea time menu from 5.30–8pm, weekdays and until 7pm Friday and Saturday. With two courses for £17.95, three for £19.95 and add half a bottle of wine £25.95, this is exceptional value at a city centre eatery.

I was a touch irritated by the three colossal blackboards boasting the menus. None come in paper form as the changes are too much to keep up with, I am told. Yes, I get it; it is very French bistro, etc. But reading a menu – especially one of this size – takes time. I simply hate standing in the middle of the floor, peering over other diners, and feeling pressured to get out of their way. Given the waiting staff’s rapid defence of the system, I will guess it is not only me who struggles with this.

All that said, the menu is delightful. I loved it. Words which make this Francophile-foodie squeal are littered throughout; confit, cassoulet, pavé, and bourguignon. On which note I have to ask myself, why, when written in French, do some foods suddenly seem much more romantic than they are? A boeuf bourguignon is after all a beef stew.

There are classic steak frites with pepper through to venison in a chocolate sauce. Vegetarians are represented with croustades of varying vegetables and cheeses, some rather appealing salads and a fancy Charlotte d’Aubergine. That I am afraid is about all there is which is also ever, so French.

Decisions made, we both sat down and admitted a slight trepidation that the promise on the blackboard may not deliver. It did, and in bucket loads.

Chicory with walnuts, pears and Roquefort was tantalisingly fresh. Had it been dressed with walnut oil, it would have been sublime. Caramelised onion with a slab of warm goats’ cheese was also well received and would have been more highly praised had it not been drizzled with balsamic glaze (not very French).

If I were to claim a signature dish, it would be a duck breast with blackcurrant (Cassis) sauce and goose fat potatoes. I knew it was risky to choose it here, risky for them more than for me. Nevertheless, choose it, I did, and both the meat and sauce were faultless. What I did find a little odd was the addition of goat’s cheese with burnt onions in a filo parcel which remained untouched as it was totally superfluous to needs. Tender onglet (hangar steak) came with a generous helping of garlic mash, bacon, mushrooms and green beans and declared another triumph.

Puddings are treated with the same respect in the French origin with brûlées, charlottes, tartes et al. The French fell down a little in their calling a macaron a macaroon, but I’ll let that one go, as this was a squidgy, sugary confection and came as blousy as a macaron should.

You will gather by now I loved Kendalls, from the generous, efficient staff right through the paraphernalia on the walls. I will forever struggle with the blackboards, but if that’s all I have to moan about, I’ll get over it. Let’s hope some of the French visiting in the next few weeks get to eat there, they will see we do know how to cook.

• Kendells Bistro, St Peter’s Square, Leeds, LS9 8AH. 0113 243 6553. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 5.30pm till late. Dinner for two with two glasses of wine, £72.