The wine is fabulous and with a few tweaks the food could be too. Elaine Lemm visits Ipsum Vinoteca.
Friday night, Leeds city centre, and we are the only people in the restaurant. The candles may be lit and the tables set but it looked like no-one was coming to this party. We toyed briefly with leaving but the walk from table to front door involved passing the bar staff and our overly eager waiter. Neither of us had the nerve, so we stayed put.
I was drawn to Ipsum Vinoteca on Duke Street by the unusual offering of a wine shop and bar with a sole focus on Italian wines plus the adjunct of a 20-seater restaurant. On the website, this promised a menu of carefully sourced local foods and other specially imported ingredients. Also on the site, there is a photograph of a handwritten blackboard flaunting dishes such as onion soup and aged Parmesan, Scottish squid with artichoke hearts and fennel, parcels of mackerel and sweet pecorino.
On our visit the board was wiped clean. There were no alluring Italian specialities, simply two starters: celeriac soup or sea winkles. Mains fared no better with a West Yorkshire pork fillet stuffed with gorgonzola or Scottish salmon risotto. We eyed the door and once again contemplated making a run for it. I was compelled to ask our waiter what had happened to the promise on the website. Though seemingly not understanding my question, he left, returning with a different two-page menu. This one was more like it with tasting platters of Italian cheeses and charcuterie, crostini, bruschetta and more .
Without doubt wine is the star of the show here with over 300 bottles and more than 30 by the glass. Each is carefully chosen from small, family-owned vineyards stretching the length and breadth of Italy. I barely recognised a single one so happily handed choice over to our waiter. His expertise in this area certainly shone. He delivered carefully considered wines with each dish and none disappointed. Unlike the food, which started with promise, but, like the candles on the empty tables, eventually flickered and died.
The tagliere misto – mixed sharing platter for two – may at £19.95 seem a tad on the expensive side but not given the quality of the meats and cheeses on it. We cut chunky pieces of gorgonzola, sweet pecorino, Romano, robiola from the Piedmonte and aged Parmesan and piled them onto the soft, sweet focaccia. There was a respectable choice of meats too with a Tuscan salami, pancetta, mortadella and dry-cured ham. The plate had a sparse amount of olives and artichokes and an over-dressing of rocket.
As previously said, the wines matched beautifully, the red a Montepulciano and for me a Pecorino – and there was me thinking Pecorino was just a cheese.
Mains took this great start onto the rapid downhill slope. The slightly grey hunk of pork described as West Yorkshire fillet was a little tough – a longer resting would have rescued this. The gorgonzola, however, was a good partner flavourwise. What did it in for this dish though was the overwhelming flavour of the sage. It killed everything on the plate.
Not that my choice of a piatto di fritti was any better received. It oozed promise on the menu, described as a selection of Italian fried homemade delicacies. First up two olive all’ Ascolana (stuffed olive). As the name implies, the olives come from the Ascolana region in the Marches and are large, green and mild in flavour. They are quite delicious and do not need the faffing with they had to undergo in this dish. Two tiny deep fried baby mozzarella were a little underwhelming but fine. The Arancini sadly was unrecognisable as the delectable risotto filled crisply-fried balls of southern Italy. The coating on the golf ball-sized offerings was so overcooked it did no favours to the filling.
What I will praise, and would have been happy to have without the rest, was the tomato sauce. It was deeply flavoured and incredibly moreish and could not possibly have been cooked by the same hand as the fried bits and bobs.
The pear strudel again had appeal on paper but the filo was almost black and had to be removed. Pears have the potential to make a good strudel but this requires a substantial flavour and texture to the fruit. This one was a little wishy-washy in both. Belgian white chocolate and lime panna cotta was much better.
Paradoxically, when a restaurant is quiet most mistakes are made. Most chefs and waiting staff like to be busy, it is the adrenalin rush that keeps them going. What went wrong on this occasion can easily be remedied with a little attention in the kitchen because Ipsum has everything going for it. The location is fabulous next to the BBC and the Playhouse with plenty of parking around. It is professionally run by knowledgeable staff despite the hiccups of this visit. What it needs though is customers and if Leeds drinkers and diners let this place slip through their fingers they will regret it.
Regardless of the ups and downs, we are glad we persevered with our dinner and particularly with the wine. I do hope they succeed.
• Ipsum Vinoteca, Duke Street, Leeds, LS9 8AG. Telephone 0113 242 5197. Open Monday to Thursday 11am to 11pm, Friday to Saturday 11am to midnight, Sunday noon to 9pm. Three courses for two with four glasses of wine, £88.