Room, Leeds – Restaurant Review
by Matt Callard
How should you approach a concept restaurant, when the only concept a restaurant really needs is good food?
Elegantly situated in a convenient courtyard just off frantic Boar Lane and only an envious stone’s throw from current Leeds Restaurant League Leader, Anthony’s, Room promises modern twists on seventies dining staples. A cursory glance at the menu, without properly understanding the concept, might see would-be diners fleeing in terror. Duck a l’Orange, Prawn Cocktail, Fish Fingers, Chicken Kiev – but wait! We’re talking retro-kitsch and noughties irony here.
Happily the concept begins and ends with the menu. There are no Life on Mars-type waiters, no booth seating, no members of Sweet propping up the bar. Although I rather like the corner seat side-by-side dining option we we are offered – very Mean Streets. It ensures I am properly positioned to take out any other critic that dare step on my (surf and) turf.
So the interior is modern, plush and warm with a lovely grey and white Timorous Beasties wallpaper design stretching along one side. The service is anything but Fawlty Towers. Informal to the point where the fabulous front-of-house person takes a pew next to you while you’re choosing. Then, later, points out that Gordon Ramsey has got a lot to answer for when it comes to shouty chefs. Yes, indeed.
“Expect controlled portions and flashes of genuine chef excellence”
There’s a strange moment where things go a little Frankie & Benny’s and you’re asked if you ‘want a surprise’ with your food. Don’t worry, it’s not a sparkler in your mash. It’s merely the restaurant’s get-out-clause from hapless diners like me who expect prawn and steak with my surf-and-turf but instead receive pork and scallop (‘with a twist,’ remember?). Course, in the good name of On: Yorkshire Magazine, I wait for said surprise and end up with pork for starters and for mains. Still, I asked for it.
And the food? Modern European with no scrimping on the prep or the ingredients. Expect controlled portions and flashes of genuine chef excellence. My partner’s white onion and thyme soup starter was sweet, fragrant and gentle, nicely balanced and dangerously creamy. That surf-and-turf (once I’d gotten over the ‘surprise’) was subtle and, like most of the food here, somehow comforting and familiar.
Those kitschy mains stood the 21st century test of time. A rare pork stroganoff was juicy and generous, leaning on some deep shiitake mushrooms (I was in on the joke by now). My companion’s steak frite was cooked to perfection, let down only by some portly chips. Surely the dish demands some crisp and lean French fries? And the side dish of onion rings was seaside fresh and nicely crunchy.
“This is not a concept designed to paper over culinary shortfalls”
The mixed tasting desserts succeed as eye candy but, combined, were swamped by an overwhelming sweetness. But when you’ve got Black Forest Gateau, Lemon and Lime Crème Brulee, Honeycomb Ice Cream, Marshmallow and Bailey’s Cheesecake to plough through, what do you expect? Weight loss?
It’s a trendy joint, too. If you’re put off by the cool-set using the bar on a weekend, eat somewhere else. But the Yorkshire-born co-founders of the establishment (there are other branches in Liverpool and Manchester) understand a lack of pretension is essential in these parts. The informality is integral to this scene.
So how do you approach a concept restaurant like Room? With a nudge and a wink and a knowing smile – but also with confidence. This is not a concept designed to paper over cracks and culinary shortfalls. The food stands up on its own. Which, when all’s said and done, is all you really need to know.
As Jack Regan himself once said with inimitable seventies panache: “We’re The Sweeney, son. And we haven’t had any dinner.”
Expect to pay about £30 per head for dinner.
Room, The Bourse Courtyard, Boar Lane, City Centre, Leeds, LS1 5DE
Editor’s Update: In March 2009 the company that owns Room went in to administration after no buyer was found for the venue. The restaurant later closed.