La Grillade, Leeds – Restaurant Review
By Matt Callard
Before Gordon and Jamie and Nigella, before most people had heard of Michelin Stars and Gastropubs, before food became a national obsession and somehow got sexy, there was a small corner of Leeds bringing the classic south French bistro experience to a gently-growing following.
And before Harvey Nics and The Victoria Quarter, before luxury apartments and canalside living, before anyone had heard the phrase Capital of the North and before Leeds somehow got sexy – there was La Grillade.
Nearly 30 years in the heart of the city, this proud single-owner restaurant has seen plenty of others come and go. Yet it remains defiantly authentic, shrugging a casual Gallic shoulder at the fads and trends of the next crazy Brit food flavours of the month, raising a knowing Gallic eyebrow at the young pretenders and the fly-by-nights, flicking a dismissive Gallic wrist at any notion of calorie count over taste.
French-run and French-owned, all new restaurants opening in the city would do well to understand La Grillade’s recipe for success. It’s not changed much over the years. A bit of honing and tinkering here and there. The slightly shabby but wholly authentic basement chic remains. The friendly France-meets-Yorkshire hospitality. The devotion to full-bodied taste and simple execution remains as strong as the day it first opened.
Our starters of Prawns with Gruyère and Mussels in White Wine were, quelle surprise, loaded with garlic. They came neatly presented in, respectively, a scallop dish and a big black pot straight out of Provence. Dippy French bread added to the kind of Man Vs Food starter you almost always secretly crave, yet very rarely get.
As the name suggests, mains lean heavily towards classic grilled meat and fish dishes. We share a terrific, tender Côte de Boeuf with a neatly dressed salad. Sliver-thin, crispy matchstick French Fries are on the side. Accompanying sauces are varied and mostly excellent. This isn’t a place for going wild with your ordering. As emphasised by the pasta afterthought as the menu’s veggie option (pasta in a French restaurant, anyone?). Nor is it a place for the local Weight Watchers fraternity to host a careful eating evening (hooray for calories!).
No, stick with what you know and what they know – that’s the idea. Plaudits too for the expert service. If you fancy a bit of monsieur and bon soir and merci beaucoup, they’ll sportingly play along. But you won’t encounter sour faces if you prefer to converse in broad Yorkshire. As we keep saying in these pages, off-handedness and pretence need to be the first things ironed out if a restaurant is to really succeed around these parts. Heck, La Grillade probably wrote the book on this a couple of decades ago.
Enjoy successful desserts if you wish – my chocolate tart was room temperature perfect, gently bitter next to a lovely lump of vanilla glace – but do not leave without trying the famous cheeseboard. A particular passion of the owner – he travels through his native country sniffing out the best that France can offer. The least you could do is thrill yourself with the Camembert with Calvados.
La Grillade has forged strong connections with the Leeds business community (it’s situated right in the district’s hub) and weekday lunchtimes can be boisterous affairs – all liquid lunches and important deals being struck. Evenings are more relaxed and there’s an excellent bar to enjoy pre-meal.
So, if this comes as a gentle reminder to some that La Grillade is still out there, still carefully adjusting and ever-improving, still reliably hearty and flavoursome – so much the better for that. Easy to forget sometimes, when all those big bad food critics are out chasing the next new thing, that some places have been doing it right for longer than Heston Blumenthal knew how to work a blender. If you’re one of those yet to sample La Grillade, make a date in your diary – here’s a foreign piece of a local field that is forever France.
Editor’s Update: Sadly, La Grillade closed down in 2013. The owner explains why in this article.