In the second of our series focusing on places to eat before the theatre, Rich Jevons goes to Leeds and visits three venues in walking distance of the West Yorkshire Playhouse: The Wardrobe, Kendells Bistro and Arts Café.
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Wardrobe. I’ve had so many great nights there: from the rammed Jamie Cullum gig when he’d snagged a £1 million record deal and before he started doing arenas, to seeing my hero Simon Fisher-Turner’s tribute to the late film-maker Derek Jarman.
And in the Leeds Guide daze we’d have our editorial meals here with great service and even better food. Now the eaterie is the Soul Kitchen, focusing on Cajun cooking.
Thanks to Soul Kitchen’s casual layout and friendly staff, as well as the piped sounds of jazz, soul and funk, this was a thoroughly relaxing meal. My dining companion and kicked off with soup which served to whet our appetites for the small and big plates on the pre-theatre menu.
We shared the starters of whitebait fries and Jamaican crab cakes, all of which were delicately prepared and rich in taste. Since hearing The Carpenters’ song, I’d always wondered about Jambalaya. Tonight it was a revelation – a fine blend of chicken, king prawns and smoked Caribbean sausage that was as filling as it was beautifully displayed and seasoned. My companion’s macaroni cheese was remarkable with its four-cheese topping and spiced sweet potato crust.
And the Yummy Yank desserts didn’t disappoint, even if they took us close to our theatre appointment. While it was nice having a table for two I would add that Soul Kitchen excels at parties too – just book well ahead as it gets busy.
To date, the most romantic restaurant [see top image] I’ve visited in Leeds has to be Kendells Bistro (like Soul Kitchen, it is a two minute walk from the West Yorkshire Playhouse). The soundtrack includes musical treats from France with the likes of Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour’s chansons in the background. And there are all sorts of Francophile memorabilia on the walls including posters from art exhibitions, photos and a host of unusual clocks.
Having spent a year in Grenoble, I have a reasonable knowledge of French cuisine and my dining companions both dine frequently at French restaurants. We’re all looking forward to our evening.
We’re not disappointed. The host is charming and the waitress’s French is spot on. I opt for the pâté de fois de Canard, a delicious duck liver pâté, while one of my friends chooses the curious but delightful concoction of black pudding, apple purée and fried onions. Meanwhile, my other pal wades through the onion in his sublime soup – all three splendid in both taste and presentation.
It’s a tough decision on the mains as there’s a choice of nine dishes on the pre-theatre menu, three veggie. I’m in the mood for some serious meat so choose the Boeuf Bourguignon which is perhaps the best carnivorous combination I’ve had ever eaten, replete with mushrooms, mash, bacon and, of course, garlic.
My pescatarian pal selects the salmon en croûte which has a fantastic tomato and butter sauce and, again, looks as good as it tastes. And my other friend, for whom Kendells comes in first over local rival French restaurants, the Confit de Canard consists of slow-cooked duck leg, dauphinoise, green beans and bacon – a veritable feast.
We’re almost too full for puds but we venture on with the creme brûlée, sablée poire praliné and parfait aux pruneaux which make a perfect finale to what is more a work of art than a meal. We’re told that, at our table, someone had proposed to their partner just the day before. It’s not hard to see why.
Although it had been a frequent haunt and handy meeting point in previous years, I’d only dined once at Arts Café. Despite being a small venue you don’t feel at all hemmed in, even in a corner table next to original artwork by Nicolas Dixon.
The early bird starter menu is varied and appetising so I plumped for one of the veggie options of squash, spinach and chestnut mushroom spelt barley risotto with cobnut pesto – simply ravishing! My dining companion selected deep-fried whitebait with salt and vinegar baked potato dip which she described as simply divine.
Throughout the meal the food is immaculately presented and supremely tasty, especially my goulash which is a real winter warmer. But I’m still rather envious of my opposite number’s butternut squash, feta and sage filo cigars, chestnut purée, cranberry and rocket salad – a real treat!
And I continue my quest for the ultimate sticky toffee pudding. The Arts Café sets a high bar for this.
The service is prompt and friendly and there’s no doubt that the pre-theatre menu is excellent value at two courses for £12.50, or three courses for £15.
By Rich Jevons
For suggestions of pre-theatre menus in other Northern cities, please contact Northern Soul’s Assistant Editor Stephanie Alderson at email@example.com