Leeds: A Beginners Intro

Leeds is fast becoming one of my favourite cities in the UK. The main reason isn’t even entirely that my spending power is doubled– but I do love that, it makes me feel like a goddamn Queen. It’s because Leeds seems to be choc-a-bloc with great places for greedy people. From one café, which my sister described as ‘omg SO Leeds’ – meaning everyone had beards and the coffee was artisan – to a delightful spattering of South East Asian stalls in Kirkgate Market. Considering the other two cities in my top 3 are, predictably, London and Edinburgh, it’s saying something of quality of the food in Leeds, not just the variety.

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I have to assume that it being a University City – with a particularly ‘cool’ and better-off-than-some student population – has something to do with the creativity in its food scene of late. But I think the importance and associated spending power of these inhabitants is overshadowed by Leeds’s rich immigrant history. Leeds, and Yorkshire generally, is known for its ability to produce a great roast and a great curry. What I hadn’t expected was to find a truly great Pho.

Bahn & Mee was the home of said Pho, and an equally delicious headliner – their Bahn Mi. The Pho is ‘Mama Nguyen’s three generation broth’ and it certainly delivered the expertise in flavour required from such a title. I won’t go into a detailed description of how the star anise was in perfect proportion and balance to the weight of the beef stock, and the coriander and spring onion was so liberally used and refreshing that I think I actually growled at my sister when she went in with her chopsticks…oh. The Bahn Mi was classic, moreish and just really bloody tasty; it’s a sandwich amped up and I’ll always love it.

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Back over at the entrance of the market we encountered some of those delightfully spongy Thai fishcakes, which upon googling (just now) I have discovered are called ‘Tod Man Pla’. These were eaten on the side of the road after 3 hours of shopping with my mother and sister, with the voracity of a wild animal. This was a welcome change from the £4.50 Pret sandwich that usually marks the middle-of-a-shopping-trip-blood-sugar-crash (historically my mother’s favourite excuse to drag two teenagers out of the Topshop sales). What I’m saying is, Leeds continually provided us with delicious and affordable food right when and where we needed it.

I’m sure there’s plenty of restaurants in Leeds, as with everywhere, that are less than satisfactory or just another chain. But I know from the ramblings of my sister and fellow students, that places like Humpit, Bakery 164 and Zaap Thai make it a thoroughly enjoyable food city to live in. The latter made a fabulously hot and tangy papaya salad that left my sister and me crying into our bowls, but unable to stop eating.

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One thing that really sets Leeds apart is its markets; from the fashion-conscious Corn Exchange to fresh produce haven that is Kirkgate. The latter boasts an array of fresh fish, meat and vegetables at very reasonable prices and so far as I’ve sampled, high quality. It’s full of little treasures like the aforementioned Thai fishcakes and towers of Backlawa. It’s also the home to the first ever M&S, which is charming in its own right. The whole market demonstrates Leeds locals’ interest in and dedication to food culture, which inevitably influenced the birth of so many of the places I’ve mentioned.

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Straying away from the South East Asian offerings in Leeds, it is certainly worth mentioning Laynes Espresso. This is the aforementioned ‘SO Leeds’ brunch spot, literally 2 minutes from the train station. Bearded inclinations aside, this place really is a cut above the rest. It’s mostly a vegetarian restaurant, although added bacon is optional, and put up a refreshingly varied brunch menu. No eggs on muffins in sight; our eggs were instead sitting pretty on top of sweetcorn fritters with chimichurri and halloumi, and a Shakshuka for one with sourdough, liberally covered in harissa butter. I was thankful for that last addition; a poorly buttered piece of toast is, in my opinion, a crime against humanity.

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The coffee was of course perfect, but I’ll refrain from saying much more there as I shouldn’t really be allowed an opinion on coffee, seeing as I spend my weekdays mainlining instant Nescafé. The cherry on top of my Laynes Espresso experience was paying the bill; 3 people, 4 coffees and brunch – about £30. That is very reasonable if you ask me, especially considering the quality of the meal and the venue itself, which is lovely.

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The last visit I made in Leeds, Shears Yard, was the poshest, and unfortunately, a bit of a let-down. In fairness, the starters and desserts were excellent and everything was beautifully plated, but 2/3 of the mains felt like they had been planned haphazardly, and executed similarly. I love a good moan, but I will refrain here because:

  1. My mother will scold me for being ungrateful and,
  2. I don’t think I’m in a position to start slating things online

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The truffle, beetroot and goats cheese starter was absolutely sublime however, as was the Kombu cured sea trout and cured lamb fillet with heirloom toms. To be fair to the mains, the marmite glazed pork belly was F.A.B.U.L.O.U.S – but the fish, Cod and Sea Bass, were greasy and lacklustre. The highlight of the meal for me might actually have been the bread and butter we started with. This isn’t just some overdone dig, it was Marmite butter and it was magical. There may be a running theme here…I 💛 bread and butter.

Leeds has also put itself ahead of the curve with an innovative food waste reduction scheme, the Armley Junk-tion Café, and it’s sister, the Best Before Bistro. These initiatives transform unwanted supermarket food ‘intercepted’ in (g)astronomic quantities, into  a varied menu under a PAYF (pay as you feel) system. The benefits of such a scheme are clear and welcome to those in need as well as local foodies. The final instalment in this goodwill service is ‘The Food Boutique’, a food waste driven PAYF ‘unique shopping experience’. Their plans for the future include a larger kitchen where they can train local chefs and continue to inspire culinary talent in Leeds. Little gems like these are precisely what makes the Leeds foodscape so interesting.

I’m sure I’ve missed some local favourites off my list – I blame the tour guide – but this is definitely a good starting point if you’re going up for business, pleasure or just to desperately cling on the remnants of university life (read: freedom) by living vicariously through your younger siblings… Enjoy!

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