Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Piazza by Anthony

In order to make a Christmas shopping trip to Leeds a little more palatable we decided to incorporate lunch and settled on Piazza by Anthony. The "Anthony" in the name refers to Anthony Flinn, probably best known for appearing in the BBC TV series "Great British Menu". He also previously worked at the cutting edge El Bulli in Spain but returned to Leeds in 1994 to launch his own innovative restaurant, Anthony's, for which he has received widespread acclaim but is still awaiting his first Michelin star.

The exciting Piazza by Anthony is the latest addition to his growing Leeds empire and the first thing that strikes you (apart from the slightly pretentious name) is its location. Situated on the vast ground floor of Leeds' grand Victorian Corn Exchange, a £1.5m refurbishment has restored the historic grade I-listed building and left it looking amazing.

The entire central expanse is occupied by Piazza and contains a café, lounge bar and private dining rooms, with a 125-seat brasserie at its centre. There is also a Bakery, Patisserie and Chocolate Shop, complete with open "theatre" kitchens where you can watch breads, pastries, cakes and confectionery being prepared throughout the day. The Cheese and Ham shop contains a special temperature and humidity controlled cheese room well stocked with a wide range of artisan cheeses, the shop also features a prosciutto slicer for fresh perfectly sliced charcuterie. These shops also supply his other establishments with their wares: the prestigious Anthony's Restaurant, Anthony's at Flannels and Anthony's Patisserie in the Victorian Quarter shopping arcade.

The more straight forward Piazza brasserie opens throughout the day serving brunch, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Since its opening last November it has clearly established a following; even on a chilly Tuesday lunchtime the restaurant was busy with most of the tables being occupied. There was a large business function in but also couples and relaxed groups of families and friends having a pre-Christmas get together. However over a year since opening its doors most of the retail shops in the Corn Exchange are sadly still empty. Maybe the developer's idea of the building being devoted to a food emporium was a little ambitious from the outset and it has probably suffered at the hands of the recession too, which is a shame. As a result of the large otherwise empty building, the brasserie can feel a little lacking in intimacy and atmosphere. Despite its buzz, flagstone floor and low-lit brick walls it still feels a bit cold (both literally and in terms of ambiance). Look up though and the Corn Exchange's mighty Victorian domed glass ceiling high above is stunning.

The extensive menu is modern British but with a continental vibe, including sections for salads, pasta and risotto which you can order as a starter or a main, as well as a more traditional mains sections featuring grilled and roast meats and fish. Although reasonably priced the dishes themselves are definitely of a standard above the norm for brasserie cooking, both in terms of presentation and execution. However I'm not quite sure it can be exactly defined as a fine dining experience either and Piazza seems to fall somewhere between the two.
The cauliflower soup that Dave ordered was velvety and apparently delicious but we both agreed that the portion was meagre, at best, and made worse by the ridiculously large bowl it was served in which was all rim and no substance. I chose a starter of scampi from the "Bar nibbles / snacks" section of the menu and they were perfect. The juicy langoustines had steamed in the crisp bread crumbed coating and were totally delicious dipped in the tartar sauce.
Dave's braised lamb shank was a decent size and came with smooth creamy mash and a dark glossy lentil jus, the meat was falling off the bone. The side order of buttered sugar snap peas with bacon was nicely cooked and complimented the dish well.

I chose the slow braised beef risotto topped with horseradish mousse; the risotto was well seasoned and had a deep flavor but the mousse could definitely have taken an extra kick of horseradish. The risotto had a perfect consistency but was cooked slightly more than usual. However the softer texture complemented the beef, anything more al dente may have jarred with the melting texture of the slow cooked meat.

We still had room for desert and ordered jam roly poly with custard and black forest gateaux with Cherry Ripple Ice Cream; it is great to see two much maligned dishes making an appearance and both were solidly executed.

Service was efficient throughout, although some of the waiting staff looked like they could do with what my mum would term "a good scrub".

Overall Piazza is impressive; it is a great concept and an ambitious project befitting of the spectacular building. Furthermore it is, on the whole, doing enough to stand up to the grandeur of its location. To consistently deliver food of this quality at a reasonable price in such a spectacular venue is undoubtedly an achievement. I just hope that the Corn Exchange really can become the buzzing shopping emporium it was intended to be because as it is staring up at the empty shops detracts from what could be an amazing foodie experience.

Piazza by Anthony
The Corn Exchange, Leeds

Monday, 14 December 2009

Damnson Good Gin!

I’ve been looking forward to this moment since we were given a load of ripe damsons at the end of summer and, along with a couple of batches of jam, I started some Damson Gin.

To make approx 1 litre of Damson Gin:

1 lb (450g) Damsons
0.75 Litres Gin
5 oz (140g) Sugar (Granulated or Castor)

Rinse the damsons and get rid of any bruised or decaying fruit. Prick the damsons with a fork and place into a 1 litre receptacle - a large wide necked Kilner or Le Parfait jar is perfect.
Pitch in the sugar and then add the gin until the fruit is covered and the jar is full to the brim.
Give the jar a good shake and repeat this for the first week or so until the sugar is properly dissolved.

I doubled the quantities given above and the 2 resulting jars were stored away in a cool dark place to do their thing.

This damson gin will hopefully not result in a thick syrupy ultra-sweet tipple but it can be sampled after a couple of months or so and, if necessary, topped up with sugar. For my taste I deemed that no extra sugar was required.

Anyway, my damsons have now been steeping in the gin for just over 3 months and have hopefully done their job imparting a delicious fruity tartness to the spirit. The gin has certainly taken on a lovely deep plum colour.

So today’s job was to filter the gin through some muslin and re-bottle the strained liquor.

Waste not, want not and so the macerated fruit is now in the fridge waiting to be made into a delicious (adults only) boozy damson crumble.

Damsons are ripe in early September, a happy coincidence then that the liqueur is now bottled and ready for drinking as a Christmas treat! I’m thinking Damson Gin Fizz on Christmas morning; 1 part Damson Gin / 3 parts English Sparking Wine.

It would be rude not to. Although past experience of this particular snifter suggests that might not be the most sensible idea, but then it is Christmas and I can always sleep it off after lunch!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Fuji Hiro

On first impressions you could be forgiven for dismissing Fuji Hiro. Tucked away in an unfashionable area of Leeds on the outside of the Merrion Centre, from the exterior the place is rather unassuming and even once inside the decor is probably best described as basic; more dated retro canteen than sophisticated Japanese funk. However, if you can look past the lino and formica topped tables then you are in for a treat. If you can't then you are probably better off sticking to the generic formula provided by the trendy noodle chain places, such as Wagamama, that seem to be springing up all over, but you will be missing out.

Fuji Hiro (meaning 'Happy Sun') is an unpretentious family run Japanese noodle bar and it is all about the food. It may not be staffed by multi-national students in logo-ed T- shirts and armed with hand held computers, but service is efficient and always with a smile. The menu itself is fairly limited, based around Ramen (noodle soup), fried rice and noodle dishes. However the food is delicious; served quickly in generous helpings and freshly cooked to order without MSG or additives.

The concept of a traditional meal with a starter followed a main course isn't really understood in Japanese cuisine, but there are a number of "side dishes" that you can order along with your main dish and the food is delivered out to your table as and when the dishes are ready. This means that food isn’t always served together, but this is only an issue if you let western preconceptions take over.

As is customary on our frequent early Sunday evening visits, we ordered 3 of the side dishes between 2 of us (we were particularly hungry). The Ebi Katsu arrived first; delectable deep-fried butterflied king prawns in crisp panko breadcrumbs, served with a spicy chilli sauce and garnished with lime. Gyozas next, these are popular Japanese dumplings comprising of a thin dough filled (in this case with pork) and sealed into a crescent shape then part steamed, part pan fried so that the bottoms are brown and slightly crunchy, they come with a soy dipping sauce. A word of warning, if you are too greedy and try to eat the gyoza whole whilst they are still steaming hot you get a burst of scalding juice in your mouth which will run down your chin and burn your lips. I know this but it still happens every time! Finally Yakitori, the traditional Japanese favourite – a classic dish of skewered chicken, basted in a sweet soy-based sauce and grilled over a high heat so it is slightly charred and sticky.

We accompanied this with mains of Spicy Yaki Soba and an enormous bowl of Chilli Beef Ramen, washed down with cold Asahi beer. The Spicy Yaki Soba consists of pan-fried buckwheat noodles with chicken, prawns and vegetables in spicy curry oil; this is Dave's favourite dish on the menu and again he couldn’t resist. I usually go for the Yaki Udon (satisfyingly thick and worm-like udon noodles fried with shitake mushrooms, prawns, chicken, vegetables and sliced Japanese fishcake, in curry oil) but this time fancied a ramen soup; a light broth packed with noodles, bean sprouts, thinly sliced veggies and fragrant coriander, topped with strips of beef and chilli sauce. You can feel it doing you good as you eat it.

The bill came to £34. Some folks may not "get" Fuji Hiro but the generous helpings and reasonably priced fresh & tasty dishes mean that it is one of those little haunts that I want to return to time and again for a quick fix of no frills Japanese comfort food.

Fuji Hiro
45 Wade Lane, Leeds, LS2 8NJ

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Lick your chops & fill your belly!

There was no food in the house, well nothing worthy of my attention or the serious hangovers we were both nursing. A bowl of granola just doesn’t cut the mustard at times like that. It’s like getting a polite handshake when you crave a big hug. So, as we were heading into Leeds anyway, we decided to make the most of the opportunity and have a late Saturday lunch at Sam's Chop House.

Sam's is a bit of a Manchester institution, apparently, having been established there in 1872; we've been to the one in Leeds a couple of times now since it opened and really enjoyed it, so it is nice to see that they seem to be cementing their position over the Pennines as well. Located in the grade-II listed former Pearl Assurance building in the city centre financial district, it has been sympathetically renovated with a Victorian inspired vibe, keeping lots of the original features; mouldings, panelling, tiles and high ceilings. The atmosphere is comfortable and relaxed, with people sitting around reading newspapers or chatting over a drink and a convivial lunch.

They have a good selection of bottled & draught beers and cask ales, including their own brew Sam's Special, and an award-winning wine list. Given our fragile states though we choose not to indulge and stuck with fresh juice.

The menu features hearty traditional British grub made from seasonal ingredients, all served in generous portions; classics such as fish 'n' chips, belly pork, fish pie, corned beef hash and various chops & steaks. I can overlook the fact that there was asparagus on the menu in November, for what was to follow.

Having had nothing to eat all day (it was now approaching 3pm) we were starving and both wanted a starter; I had the Brown Onion Soup and Dave went for the Crispy Corned Beef Hash Cakes, made with their home-corned brisket and topped with a perfect poached egg and brown sauce dressing. Both were absolutely delicious, but for us it was really all about the main event.
I had known what I wanted even before I walked through the door and despite Dave's usual aversion for ordering the same thing as me, neither of us could resist and we both ordered the home-made Steak & Kidney Pudding. They warn you it’s substantial and it doesn't disappoint. The suet crust is actually quite thin and delicate but once you break through it’s packed solid with rich, melting meat and chunks of lamb's kidney. It is served with an individual jug of tasty gravy and some of the best chips I have ever eaten – thick and fluffy inside but amazingly crunchy on the outside. The crushed marjoram scented peas were a good accompaniment too. Less than half way through I was already regretting the delicious soup and unfortunately my eyes proved to be bigger than my, not insignificant, belly; I just couldn't finish mine. Dave struggled manfully to polish his off and did manage it but neither of us could squeeze in a desert. We left, feeling better and knowing that we had been right to forsake the immediate gratification offered by the granola and hold out for the food equivalent of a full on and immensly satisfying love-in.

Sam's Chop House
8 South Parade, Leeds, LS1 5QX