Tuesday, 22 April 2014

OUT AND ABOUT | BLACKHOUSE, THE GRILL ON THE SQUARE

It occurred to me when I received an invite from the team behind Blackhouse to visit their Leeds branch 'The Grill on the Square' that I had in fact never ordered a steak in a restaurant before. Mainly because of a reason... the price.

I am a BIG steak fan. Every three weeks or so I treat myself to a sirloin or rump (whatever looks best quality down Butcher's Row) from Leeds Kirkgate market and get my griddle pan a'sizzling. Two minutes each side, precisely measured with a countdown timer on my phone.

As a student I would usually treat myself to a steak from one of the local pubs, cheap and maybe not so cheerful but it did the deed in terms of providing that much-needed dose of iron that students tend to lack. But yes... steak in a restaurant was about to become a new experience for me.

After a long drive back up to Leeds following a short stint back home down South, I took Papa Wood as my guest to Blackhouse. Arriving on a Monday evening at 6pm, the restaurant was relatively empty and quiet but had a nice ambience to it. Some people were just enjoying drinks after work at the bar, whilst others were sitting down to enjoy a meal or some cocktails.


We took our seat at a table by the window and ordered wine. Red of course (I only drink white to be polite) we both went for the house French red, La Serre Merlot priced at £5 for a small glass.

The wine was served and the temperature was perfect. Not cold, slightly warm and exactly the temperature a red wine should be. I have never had a glass of red served where it has not been too cold before so this was a pleasant surprise indeed.

We had ordered some starters, I went for the Scottish Mussels in Cider and Chorizo (£7) and my Pa went for the Crispy Calamari with Lemon Mayonnaise (£6). Both arrived in good time, just over 10 minutes from order to table.


First up, my mussels came served in a shallow dish with a lid for the shells and a water bowl with hot water for what would become inevitably messy fingers.

The mussels were juicy and plump. They tasted fresh and clean with not a bit of grit in sight. The mussels were bathing in a shallow layer of cider stock, accompanied with two crisp tostada's on the side. When crumbled into the mussels they added an almost crouton-like texture to the dish. The chorizo was not overpowering or too salty and there was plenty of it to go about. The cider added a nice depth to the dish without it being too rich like its popular white wine and cream counterpart.


With seafood being the continual theme, Papa Wood's calamari came with the tentacles on. They had kindly asked him on ordering if he would like them to remove the tentacles but we don't do things by half in this family!

The calamari was fresh and coated in a light and crispy batter with a a rather decadent lemon mayo to add a bit of oomph. This was snaffled up almost instantly and received a firm nod of approval.


Next up is the headline act! Yes we both went for steak... with chips. I had a little discussion about this too as all the steaks are served with either a portion of chips, mash potato or a baked potato and whilst all three are obviously great variations of the potato in their own right, I could still not really envisage eating a steak with a jacket or a portion of mash!

I was told that their beef is sourced from local Yorkshire producers. It is prided on being of a premium quality and is aged for 28 days to ensure tenderness and flavour.


Papa Wood went for the Ribeye Steak (£17.95), a hefty hunk of juicy meat cooked medium rare and served with a little mini fryer basket full of home-cut chips and watercress on the side. This steak was indeed juicy and extremely succulent. Served as he had asked for, it came medium-rare. I had a sneaky strip and it was indeed succulent and tender. It had a melting texture in the mouth due to the marbling of the fat through the meat.


I went for the Rump Steak (£17.95), which was also cooked medium-rare. My steak was juicy, slightly firmer but was also tender to the taste. As a leaner cut, it was not as supple as the ribeye steak but it had good flavour throughout and was pink and oozing juice all the way through. A very fine steak indeed.

My absolute MUST for a steak is a good serving of horseradish. I know horseradish is a marmite-type love/hate condiment but for me it is the absolute making of a good steak. In my eyes too only the hot chunky versions will do, not like the creamy mild slop you find in a Wetherspoons.

I asked the waitress for some horseradish and HURRAH she brought over two shining little pots of hot chunky horseradish which just made my steak sing to an even finer tune.


We were both sold on the chips. Hand-cut skin-on potatoes which were soft and fluffy on the inside with a good crisp jacket on the outside. With a steak I want simple sides. A bit of greenery usually does the trick with some fresh salad leaves or even some steamed green veg.

A healthy one at heart, we shared side dishes of a Mixed Herb and Leaf Salad (£3.75) and a portion of Roasted Sprouts (£3.50) - however as sprouts were out of season we were offered baby cabbage instead. I was impressed to see a commitment to using seasonal vegetables where possible.

To accompany my steak I also had a second glass of red wine, this time going for a Spanish wine, the Borsao Garnacha at £5.50 for a large glass. This was slightly colder than my previous glass but it was well bodied in taste and went down very smoothly with the steak.


To finish we had a coffee each, Espresso (£2.25) for me and a Macchiato (£2.25) for who I think the staff were now wondering whether was my actual Pa or just a sugar Daddy I had brought along for the ride.

Glancing over the dessert menu we were both eyeing up the interesting looking apple pie which came with a Lancashire cheese crust and custard but alas we could not find the room for such a heavy dessert. Instead we shared an Affogato (£4.50) which came as a ristretto, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a shot of Amaretto. This wasn't something I would usually order but I was intrigued to see how it was served. It was a bit of a DIY job and a nice light offering from the dessert menu. I did however then pour the whole Amaretto shot on without knowing how strong it would be and after a few mouthfuls we couldn't eat anymore.


This meal would have came to a total of £82.25. A similar price to the total of the bill for the meal I had at The Alchemist a few weeks back (see post here) which for me seemed shocking considering the poor quality of the food and service.

It's also interesting to me and something that I think I should note that both The Alchemist and Blackhouse are run by the same restaurant operator.

However, in the case of Blackhouse, the standard of the restaurant, the service and the high quality of the food on offer was on a different scale altogether. For two starters, two mains, two sides, one dessert, three glasses of wine and two coffees this was a very reasonable price (although still not one I would usually be able to afford!).


Whilst this is not your average restaurant to visit on a regular basis, Blackhouse would be one that I would be happy to recommend to someone to visit for a special occasion or for a celebratory meal.
The service and the quality of the food were both very good and the atmosphere on that evening that we went was welcoming and relaxed.


Disclaimer: I was invited to review this restaurant with a complimentary meal for myself and a guest, however all the views within this review are my own honest opinions.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

OUT AND ABOUT | GUSTO ITALIANO 'TASTE OF ITALY' NIGHT AT THE LAZY LOUNGE

Mario Olianas, a Sardininian chef turned his passion into a successful by starting up Gusto Italiano which hosts a series of supper clubs (look out for Cena Sarda) and 'Taste of Italy' nights, as well as hosting his own Italian cookery class and featuring regularly at farmers markets and cooking demonstrations.

Mario was looking some food bloggers to come and try out his latest 'Tasty of Italy' night at the Lazy Lounge in Leeds, his 16th one if you must know. With a feast of all wonderful Sardinian and Italian creations awaiting us, myself and food blogger Diane jumped at the chance to go along and took up our invites.


Arriving at the Lazy Lounge, Mario was there with a few other guests and also his special guest of the night, Adam Thur, talented pâtissier from The Pastry Stall. Each month, Mario likes to team up and collaborate with local producers, with previous ones including The Yummy Yank, Costello's Bakery and Pudsey Pickles.

An area was reserved on the mezzanine layer of the bar with a table set out in the corner. The spread looked incredible. Before us lay a table adorned with bruschetta, cured meats, pecorino, salads, frittata and antipasti which was beautifully presented on large ornate mirrors. All of this (with refillable plates plus a dessert course to follow) is a bargain at £10.99 - something I would have been more than happy to pay.

The evening started and ended with great conversation. Both Mario and Adam were keen to talk and tell us about their backgrounds, history and passion. The guests we were sat at the table were also full of tales of food adventures in Leeds and one couple in particular were keen fans of Mario's nights, having visited previous 'Taste of Italy' nights as well as one of his supper clubs.


Waiting until all the guests arrived was a great opportunity to have Mario tell us what exactly was on the table in front of us. 

His home made carta di musica, crisp thin sheets of unleavened bread which get their name from being so thin before cooking that a sheet of music can be read through it and a popular Sardinian flat bread.


The impressive plank (I mean it!) of cheese was a selection of five different variations of Pecorino cheese. The hard, salty cheese of Italy made from ewe's milk. Mario had made three of the cheeses himself using Yorkhire produce with a ten day, twenty day and thirty day old pecorino. These were very light and mild compared to what I am used to but made for a nice change and complimented some of the dishes beautifully.

There were also two Sardinian pecorino's available which were a lot stronger and harder in texture - these are my sort of cheese and they were extremely mature and strong in taste.


Next up was the bruschetta. There were two choices available. A classic Tomato and Basil Bruschetta as well as a Roasted Vegetable Bruschetta with aubergine, red onion and peppers. The bread was hard and crispy, just as it should be. The toppings were light and fresh and the bread sucked in the moisture whilst retaining its texture. These were both executed very well.


The Frittata was light and fluffy and made with spinach and mushrooms. It was thin and dense and not like some of the pie-esque fritatta's you see popping up in deli's at the moment. It was delicate but held its own good flavour.


Two salads were also freshly prepared. The traditional Insalata Caprese as well as a salad which I had never tasted before, the Polpa di Granchio alla Catalana which was made with shredded crab sticks. Both were fresh and nice accompaniments to the heavier dishes.


If that wasn't enough for you then just wait til you get a look at this meat platter! Parma Ham, Mortadella and Salami Napoli laid out across a huge board. Margarita Pizza's with the local Italian ristorante Primo also arrived and everyone was just about ready to tuck in.


Bowls of balsamic glazed baby onions, sun dried tomatoes and artichokes in olive oil were also there for us to pick at to complete the perfect antipasti plate.


Stocking up the plate with a bit of everything made you realise just how much effort had gone into this spread. The food was extremely good and inspiring to me as I have never tasted Italian food in this way before.


Feeling very full and very happy with what I had just eaten... along comes the beautiful dessert spread from The Pastry Stall.


With a delightful range of tarts, desserts and macaroons there was not an option to be full... always room for dessert they say?!

Passion Fruit and White Chocolate Tart, Straciatella Cheesecake (with popping candy!), Lemon Meringue Pie, Fruit Tart, Salted Chocolate Tart and Strawberry and Coffee Macaroons filled the table.

Cutting each tart into pieces we were all able to have a mouth sized taster of each (if our stomachs allowed).
The cheesecake had a light consistency and wasn't too sweet. The addition of popping candy made it rather exciting to eat but didn't detract from the taste.

The lemon meringue pie was again not too sweet and had the right balance of acidity and sourness from the lemon. The pastry was firm and held the tart together with its perky whipped meringue on top.

I also had a little nibble of the salted chocolate tart, a soft chocolate flavour which was not overpowering or rich in the way that most chocolate desserts can be. The coffee macaroon was also light and soft with a bit of chew, just how a good macaroon should be.


The night was a great success and for me a real insight into authentic Italian dining. I would struggle to fault anything as all the food was fresh, using local produce where possible and made by two chefs which were passionate about their food. I would highly recommend booking onto one of Mario's 'Taste of Italy' nights if you are looking for a night of good food, conversation and a nice friendly atmosphere at a very reasonable price.

The 'Taste of Italy' nights are held every month at the Lazy Lounge on Wellington Street in Leeds. You can keep up to date on Mario's next events by visiting his website here.


Disclaimer: I was invited to review this meal for free, however all the views within this review are my own honest opinions.

Friday, 18 April 2014

OUT AND ABOUT | LA CASITA

Invited a few months back to attend the launch of La Casita, a new independent Spanish tapas bar in Ilkley. I had to reject due to another event I had planned for that evening but also due to the media crazed invite that I received to the launch itself... Harry Potter actors, and the whole shebang. No thank you.

The chef proprietor is Simon Miller, a chef from numerous highly acclaimed establishments including The Fleece in Otley, Piazza by Anthony in Leeds and Ilkley's Michelin-starred restaurant The Box Tree which is just round the corner. 

Invited to come back to sample the menu with a complimentary two tapas dishes and two glasses of wine, I had booked to go early next month. However, unexpectedly I ended up jumping on the back of a drop out invite with my friend Diane, also a food blogger (her blog is here) who had booked to go last Wednesday.


Entering the quaint little arcade, we walked up the stairs on to a mezzanine level to see some seating outside and the door to the restaurant. We were greeted at the bar and led to a table inside a room that looked like it could have once been an art gallery in its former life. However now this room was quite dingy, low lighting and with musky red walls to match.

Greeted by the drinks menu, we decided to share a bottle of white wine. I am usually a red kind of girl, but when a good bottle of white is chosen I can be swayed. Diane chose the New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc priced at £21.


The tapas menu consisted of five main sections with aperitivos, vegetariano, carne, pescados and a charcuterie selection. A mixture of traditional tapas dishes were there but also some modern takes on the classics.


Recommended to have five tapas dishes between the two of us, we opted for four. Diane chose the Tortillas de Patatas (Spanish tortilla with garlic aioli £5.00) and the Albóndigas al Estilo Español (meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce £6.00). Seeing there were two standard dishes gone for I went to try a few new ones and picked the Carrillada en Cocción Lenta (ox cheeks slow cooked in red wine £6.80) and the Bacalao Laminado (flaked cod with spiced lentils £7.00).

We ordered our four dishes and the waitress asked if we wanted a few more dishes and why we didn't want to try their special of the day which was John Dory with a fennel salad. We stuck to our four dishes and then the wait set in.

Gazing around the restaurant there were parties of all ages and sizes, however it was not busy as such. After about 20 minutes of waiting the hangry pangs set in and we were both wondering where our food was. After 30 minutes the dishes arrived and we were pleasantly relieved.

First to grace our tables were the Albóndigas al Estilo Español and the Carrillada en Cocción Lenta. The dishes were brimming and full and very generous for tapas portions.


There were four meatballs in total topped with a fresh tomato sauce on top. The meatballs were firm and had a good consistency, however we struggled to find the smokiness that you would usually expect from them. The spice in the tomato sauce was also absent but this was still a very nice dish to eat.


Next up was the dish I had been most looking forward to and boy did it not disappoint! Melt in the mouth chunks of slow cooked ox cheeks in a delicious red wine reduction. These were cooked very well and the flavour was very warming and rich. This was the star of the tapas show!


Along came the Bacalao Laminado, which was served almost as a salad with a portion of what I think was a mixture of puy and green spiced lentils, topped with flaked cod, tomatoes and salad leaves. The lentils were very good and were not overcooked. The flaked cod lacked the "salt cod" flavour we were after. Asking the waiter if it was salt cod he had to go and check with the chef but then came back to tell us that it was. This was a very nice dish but I feel it was mainly due to the wow factor of the lentils.


And finally, last but not least we have the Tortilla de Patatas. A wedge of Spanish omelette with potato inside served with garlic aioli and a salad garnish. The tortilla itself was quite stodgy and not as fluffy or light as I have tasted in other tapas restaurants. The garlic aioli to match it was quite pungent but in a good way with a flavour that was not too overpowering but complimented the the light centrepiece.


Not feeling the need for dessert, we had a look at the menu on offer to find one stand out dish... avialable in seven different variations! Parfait was the dessert of choice and priced at £2 a slice. We were both slightly confused by this and puzzled as to why such a restrictive dessert menu.

This was a nice treat to have tapas and also to visit Ilkley, however the prices compared to other tapas favourites in Leeds (like Ambiente and El Bareto) are softer on the wallet and excel in some places were La Casita failed to match.

The service was quite slow and the staff not knowing the ingredients to dishes and being overly interested in wanting us to order more food and drinks which for me is quite off putting.

Our meal for a bottle of wine and four tapas dishes came to £42, however with the complimentary 2 glasses of wine and two tapas dishes this came to £21.


Disclaimer: This meal was 50% complimentary, however all the views within this review are my own honest opinions.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

OUT AND ABOUT | THE ALCHEMIST

Before you read this I would just like to say that I should not have accepted to do this review.

About a month ago I was asked to come for a complimentary meal with a guest by The Alchemist to review the menu at their Leeds branch. I was a little dubious at first, mainly due to it being quite an expensive restaurant (not somewhere I would usually go or be able to afford to eat at).

Being a chain as well, albeit a smaller one than most, I felt out of my comfort zone before I even stepped foot in the door. I did however go because I have been invited on previous occasions by friends and had rejected (mainly due to the price) and because I have heard mixed reviews and wanted to see what it was like for myself.


Arriving at The Alchemist on what was a Wednesday evening at 6pm, the bar was full to the brim of suits and city types. We were greeted by their host after hanging around by the counter for a few minutes and asked if we had a booking. I told them my name and it came up on the booking screen with "reviewer" next to my name.

Seated to a table, my friend and I sat down and were shown the menu's for food and drink. Almost instantly we were asked for drinks before even approaching the drinks menu. We felt quite pressured by the waitress to choose as it appeared she wasn't budging until orders were taken.

My friend and I asked for her recommendations, which ended up being a Dead Red Zombie and a Big Al's Porn Star. She also asked us if we wanted any nibbles, caught a bit off guard we scrambled to the food menu and before we knew it we'd ordered some Edamame Beans.



The cocktails arrived pronto. First up was my Dead Red Zombie, a cocktail from their 'Molecular Madness' range which in the description said it was "Guaranteed to put some sparkle in your life". It arrived smoking with some dry ice formula and was rather pretty to look it. It was extremely tasty and sweet and didn't last very long (cocktails are like juice to me) and was priced at £8.75.

My friend ordered the Big Al’s Porn Star which was priced at £10.00. The Alchemist's twist on a Porn Star Martini. This was a concoction of pineapple foam, Reyka vodka, Passoã and fresh passion fruit with a sprinkling of popping candy and a shot of Prosecco on the side.

Both were extremely good (although I am no cocktail connoisseur) and we were thoroughly impressed by them.


Almost as soon as the drinks were placed on the table we were greeted by the Edamame Beans (£2.95). A gigantic portion which were lightly coated in sesame oil and sea salt and served with a soy sauce dip.

These were a little too greasy for my liking but I enjoyed the concept and popping open the shells. We also set down to order some starters and our mains.


No more than five minutes later did our starters arrive. I had ordered the Chicken and Spring Onion Pot Stickers (£4.50) which came with a sweet chili and soy sauce dip. Four pot stickers arrived with lovely presentation and a dip which resembled the same as the one which accompanied the Edamame Beans.

The pot stickers themselves had a good texture and were melt in the mouth. The filling however was nondescript and bland. Obviously these are meant to be eaten dipped in the sauce but it would have been nice to have had a good flavour in the dumplings themselves.


My friend went for the Crispy Baby Calamari served with lemon mayonnaise (£5.50). Again, beautifully presented. My friend enjoyed this starter and said it was good for calamari.


Once the starters had been finished our table was cleared. We were sat right next to the open scene kitchen tucked away to the middle of the restaurant. We saw what we thought were are two mains sitting on the serving counter and joked about how they were our meals.

In the mean time, we ordered some more cocktails and both went for the Passion Fruit Daiquiri at £6.50. We were greeted with yet more delicious cocktails. These were lovely and fresh, served with a half slice of pomegranate.


Again... about five minutes later our sides arrived. We had ordered the French Beans (£2.95) and the Salt and Pepper Fries (£3.50). Following this, the two dishes that had been sat on the serving counter for a good seven minutes (the ones we had joked about) were in fact our meals.


Wanting something not too heavy and a nice mid-week meal, both my friend and I had ordered salads off their menu.

The Sticky Beef Salad (£10.95) I had ordered was described as being served 'Asian style' with beansprouts, ginger and chili. What was put in front of me was in fact a bed of lettuce leaves with a few beansprouts scattered on top and then your average Chinese takeaway equivalent of crispy chili beef and a birds nest of deep fried vermicelli noodles.


My friend went for their Bang Bang Chicken Salad (£9.25) which looked promising. However on taste it lacked any distinct flavour and was extremely disappointing.


Feeling a tad let down by the 'big talk' I had heard surrounding The Alchemist our table was cleared. Presented with a dessert menu, I was not even willing to go there so we settled for a final cocktail each.

My friend opted for the Strawberry Cup (£7.95), a mix of Green Mark Russian vodka, strawberry liqueur, fresh strawberries, mint, lemon juice and sugar topped with ginger ale, whilst I continued on my passion fruit stint and went for the Passion Fruit Mojito (£7,25). Again, no faults on the cocktail front with two very delicious and extremely drinkable cocktails served.


We asked for the bill. The meal was free as a complimentary invite to review the restaurant and my immediate guilt set in. £86.55 in total. A fee which to me seems extortionate for what we had just eaten.


If you are looking to go to The Alchemist then I highly recommend going for cocktails as they were indeed superb, however I cannot vouch for their food. Looking back now I see it was an unfair test of the menu seeing as both myself and my friend ordered salads, however that is usually what I would order if I was eating out mid-week and would expect good quality from wherever I chose to eat.

In conclusion. As cited at the very beginning of this post - I should NOT have accepted to do this review, but I did, and I am indeed sorry and have learnt my lesson.