The top end of Briggate has never been the swanky part of Leeds. Take half a dozen paces past the Grand Theatre and all at once you’re in a place where the dustbinmen don’t seem to go, and the food offering slips seamlessly from cool bars and diners to tacky take-out joints. And there, in the middle of it all is an ungainly corner building with the legend Vice & Virtue over the dimly-lit door. I’ll admit I thought twice about it, then again at the top of the first flight of stairs. You might do the same, but trust me, push on.
The cocktail bar, Vice, has been open for a while, the restaurant on a further floor, Virtue, a couple of months. I’ve never been in a gentleman’s club, but I watch documentaries on Channel 4 so I get the gist. Blood red walls, black ceiling, dark brown padded banquettes, a pole dancing dais and gilt-edged mirrors scream “members only”. I slide into a booth with the cocktail list which I can’t read, the lighting is so low, and expect Cynthia Payne to fetch up any minute and ask “who’s next?”
I’m wondering how quickly I can make an exit when Dean the mixologist comes over to take my G&T order. “Botanic! Great choice,” he trills. “I bought my mum a bottle of it for Christmas!” He leans in conspiratorially, “true story”. His twinkling charm instantly takes the sting out of the slightly seedy surroundings; as he leads us up to the restaurant, I ask where he’s from. “Consett. Famous for Phileas Fogg, Mr Bean – and me, hahaha!”
The restaurant is less scary, to the point of being bland, but when the food’s this good you don’t notice what’s on the walls. Chef/owner Luke Downing has had any number of gongs thrown at him down the years. His French eaterie in West Park, Dough, won Best Suburban Restaurant (I was underwhelmed). What he’s created here is another thing altogether.
There are three fixed priced menus: five courses for £35, seven for £45 and 10 for £55, each with a drinks package which is more than simply a wine flight (price p/p hikes accordingly). We don’t indulge, preferring a peerless white Rioja on account of it’s a school night – but if you’re pushing the boat out, go for it, the pairings are spectacular.
Downing calmly sends out exquisite food from his open kitchen. There are just the two of them, it’s a busy night, and each course arrives exactly on time and without fanfare, apart from a brief description of what’s on your plate from the well-versed waitress. “Crevette” is a single item dotted with intense smoked oyster mayo, black caviar and a sliver of paper-thin pickled cucumber, kick-starting our juices.
Fillet beef carpaccio arrives under a glass dome swirling with whisky smoke. I don’t generally approve of such theatre but here it’s effective – it really does imbue the meat, confit tomato and Jerusalem artichoke with earthy woodiness. Next up, beautifully tender partridge breast with a belting Oloroso reduction, crushed pistachio and a tangle of hair-fine spring onion.
Downing then rather cleverly sends out another fish course – this time, beetroot and juniper-cured monkfish with a fabulous deep pink tint round the edges, some tiny, sharply pickled courgette and a wasabi blob that jolts us out of our swoon.
Up next, my dish of the night which is so much more than its simple description: mallard breast, croquet, mustard, vegetables. The duck is perfectly pink, the baby carrots sweet as a nut and it’s all sat on a mustardy puree whooshed across a dramatic black plate.
It’s worth saying that there’s none of that annoying “check-back” malarkey, but front of house, a rather dashing, elegant chap smoother than a baby’s bottom and just as fragrant is looking after us discreetly. When the floor staff are this good you yearn for the same in every restaurant.
A delightful glass of, oh I’m not sure, something tasting of lavender and lemon, sort of a mousse with meringue, light as a feather, a palate-cleansing, sharpish thing with basil is precursor to a warm blondie with rhubarb sorbet and some chocolate, a stunning finish to a memorable meal.
There’s unwavering confidence in the cooking here. Downing displays all the tropes of modern dining and throws local and seasonal into the mix too, and despite the sophistication of the dishes, there’s no pretension, just fabulous flavours and textures and a sprinkling of fairy dust. If it’s a fine dining night you’re after without the five-month wait for a table at The Man Behind The Curtain, get booking. Oh, my radar wasn’t far off the mark – turns out the place used to be a strip club.
• Vice & Virtue, 68 New Briggate, Leeds LS1 6NU. 0113 345 0202, viceandvirtueleeds.co.uk; dinner for two (the £45 option) with wine (£25) and service: £140.