The Sunday Times restaurant reviewer Marina O’Loughlin – not a fan of MasterChef – wrote recently in her column about its tyranny. What bugs her most is the way it has altered expectations of what’s put in front of us; “It’s had a detrimental effect on the UK restaurant scene, issuing an unwritten diktat that upscale restaurant food needs to contain as many ingredients and techniques on the same plate as possible.” Welcome to the burgeoning Leeds South Bank restaurant scene, Matt Healy, MasterChef runner-up 2016.
Restaurateurs Phil Richardson and Shaun Davies ran the Foundry for 12 years, and when they decided to sell, Healy, who had been casting around looking for a central Leeds location made his move, promising to take it “to the next level”. He was stepping into big boots, given that the place was something of a shrine with die-hard Foundry fans. Following a substantial refurb – as much as can be done to a Grade- II listed building – he opened in June with a cacophony of whistles and bells.
On a stunning summer night, the South Bank as we must now call it (Holbeck, to those of us who didn’t get the memo) looks pretty damn good. When I worked in Leeds in the middle ages, it was the arse-end of town, a part of the city where you simply wouldn’t venture. Then the creative types moved in, gussied up the Victorian mills, and now it’s borderline chic. The Foundry’s interior is all exposed brick, filament bulb-lit, lofty arches and a polished concrete floor, with an open kitchen above which is the legend “Food to swear by” in neon. “Passion is a major driving force behind every chef,” opines Healy on his website, adding “this can be expressed in other forms such as the use of colourful language”, underlining his rock and roll status.
It’s nudging 70 degrees so we colonise one of the tables under the awning outside. The menu fits the Mediterranean vibe we’re beginning to take for granted, what with this endless sunshine, with the likes of chorizo in cider, pickled Guindilla chillies and Iberica De Bellota charcuterie present in the “snacks” section, but we plough straight into “Plates”. Torched mackerel hits the spot, the fish nicely smoky, offset with tart apple and a scatter of Instagrammable purple viola. Beef tartare, accurately seasoned and topped with an egg yolk comes with a blue cheese and onion toastie – a neat idea but the butty lacks a bit of oomph. Not so seabass ceviche, vivacious and screaming of the sea, with a hit of chilli and flecks of mango – a slam-dunk dish. One duff note: grilled baby leeks are weirdly tough and, despite a good sweet/sharp romesco sauce, are beyond rescue. Next up, a lovely summery bowl of heritage tomatoes studded with sharp pickled shallots, topped with delicate, creamy burrata spilling over as it should, the good sourdough making a perfect mopper-upper.
If some of this reminds you of the last time you went to El Gato Negro, it’s no coincidence given that Healy put three years in behind the stove in Manchester, with man-to-man marking by Simon Shaw, before a stint in London, and his telly debut on MasterChef, where two Michelin-star Marcus Wearing declared his sauce “one of the best I’ve ever tasted”. Healy’s “aw shucks” reaction to this is worth checking out on YouTube.
Also present, harissa spiced lamb, bavette steak and sous vide duck with baby beets and blood orange, pressa Iberica with grilled scallop, plus a chunk of roast cauliflower sitting on malted puree with pine nuts and hard-to-spot Vermouth – a perfectly good dish, earthy and sweet with raisins – but not worthy of its £14.50 price tag. Likewise the “Catalan-style” fish stew – again, full of flavour and depth, but I gasped at shelling out £22.50, even with its Marcus Wearing sauce. These prices seem disproportionate given the ceviche and tartare come in at £8.50, but the smartly dressed young crowd aren’t flinching.
Healy describes his style as “unconventionally British” but it smacks more of the Med, although the menu changes every six weeks, so the next one might feature marrowbone and rabbit. Indisputably British is the sticky toffee pudding, not a hot summer night dish but the much-talked-about crème brûlée doughnut I was hoping for wasn’t available. Smooth-as-silk lemon posset is a playful affair involving tiny meringues and a sprinkle of sherbet; a textbook chocolate and hazelnut fondant oozes over sharp raspberry sorbet and praline rubble.
It’s a jolly vibe made memorable by outstanding front of house. Healy’s flexing his tattooed muscles, but managing to stay just this side of the MasterChef malarkey – good ingredients aren’t over-interfered with; fine dining without the curse of MC and the horrible prospect of grinning greengrocer Greg Wallace fetching up and ruining your night.
Matt Healy X The Foundry, 1 Saw Mill Yard, Leeds LS11 5WH tel: 0113 245 0390 www.mhfoundry.co.uk. Closed Monday, open Tuesday-Thursday, 12-9.30pm, Friday-Saturday, 12-10pm, Sunday, 12-4pm.