I started visiting Leeds about ten years ago, when I met Dr Weasel. Back then it was already a pretty darn pleasant city to visit, with fantastic shopping in the Arcades, a branch of Harvey Nichols and some amazing municipal architecture. Since then, the place has only got better – the city is positively bristling with good restaurants these days, and Anthony’s (0113 245 5922) is one of the very best.
To be entirely honest, I remain unconvinced by most molecular gastronomy I’ve tried. It’s often fiddly, a bit pretentious – the tubes of slightly (and repellently) high, sticky foie gras wrapped in red pepper toffee I had earlier this year at Midsummer House in Cambridge remain a very expensive nadir of chefly masturbation. (I have not reviewed Midsummer House here, because bad reviews are too easy to write and it’s no help to the reader if I write an armful of invective where a simple ‘don’t visit; they don’t deserve their two stars and they cost too much’ would do. In short, don’t visit; they don’t deserve their two stars and they cost too much.) I’ve tried other restaurants offering molecular gastronomy which have been much more successful. Jean Ramet in Bordeaux, for example, is worth a visit, but only uses molecular techniques in a few courses in the menu. I’d pretty much given up on finding a good meal served in this style in the UK until time and wallet allowed a visit to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.
So I was intrigued when, looking for somewhere to take Dr W’s family for a pre-Christmas meal, I read about Anthony’s. The head chef and restaurant director both worked for years at El Bulli in Spain, which is widely considered Europe’s best restaurant and the very best in the world for molecular cooking. (El Bulli’s waiting list for reservations is currently standing at two years, so don’t expect a review any time soon.) Chef Ferran Adria is incredibly picky about who he employs, and Anthony Flinn is the only British chef to have worked at El Bulli. After three years in Spain, he came back to Leeds to set up his own restaurant with his father – a quick glance at the online menu had me on the phone immediately, booking a table.
The restaurant is a very short walk from Leeds station (just as well, given the weather on the day we visited – dead umbrellas littered the pavements and little match girls were perishing in every doorway). We were welcomed into a very comfortable bar area with sofas and low tables, where we were greeted with a wine list, and, joy of Christmas joys, a beer list. I skipped over the wines and went straight for the beers – there was the very pricey but creamily delicious Deus Champagne beer, which is brewed in Belgium and then shipped to the Champagne region of France to be bottle-conditioned in the same way Champagne is, resulting in tiny bubbles and a high alcohol content. I settled for a glass of my favourite Kriek, and we tucked into a jar of juicy purple olives.
Downstairs, in the restaurant proper, we found a large table, beautifully dressed. The lunch set menu is unfathomably well-priced at £19.95 for two courses or £23.95 for three. I chose from the a la carte menu, largely because I had been fantasising about the restaurant’s signature white onion risotto with parmesan air and espresso ever since booking.
An amuse bouche arrived for the whole table (very nice, this, given that one of our party wasn’t eating a starter). A glass of goose jelly, topped with achingly sweet brown shrimp and a nutmeg foam was one of the very best things I’ve eaten all year – right up there with the poached oysters and caviar at Picasso in February.
Two tiny loaves of fresh, white bread came to the table, accompanied by three soft butters. One was salted, one creamed with vast amounts of parmesan, and one, introduced as ‘toast butter’ tasted of . . . toast. Lightly browned, glossily buttered, delicious toast. Suddenly molecular gastronomy stopped looking quite so silly, and began to make a very perfect kind of sense.
The white onion risotto arrived. I have been trying to work out what bits of molecular chef’s kit went into packing such a tremendous load of flavour into those little grains of rice – I’m guessing that a vacuum was involved somewhere. The parmesan foam was a wonderful foil to the strong but sweetly creamy onion of the rice, and the small amount of espresso at the bottom of the bowl was a remarkable and successful contrast of flavours. This was a very generous portion for an appetiser, but I’m very grateful that it was; I could have happily bathed in this stuff. The set lunch starters were a celeriac velouté with a ham hock ravioli – the pasta skin was made from a sheet of scallop – and a very delicate crab filo presentation with cucumber salad. All delicious.
The set main course that everyone else at the table chose was a roast poussin, beautifully presented in a mirepoix of vegetables and a very rich jus with potato puree. I chose the pan fried cod cheek with oxtail. Several fatty little fish cheeks were arranged on the plate in a cep puree which was so darkly mushroomy it tasted curiously of gunpowder. The sticky, gelatinous oxtail was a fantastic contrast, but the thing on the plate that best set off the cod was a pair of sweet malt jelly cubes covered with grated black truffle. Something about the dark, back-of-mouth sweetness of malt, the almost bodily warm odour of the truffle and the cleanly fatty cod together made a kind of magic.
Professor Weasel opted for cheese for dessert. Another time, I’d like to pay the extra £10.50 for what the menu calls the Eleven Cheeses Supplement – Prof W’s three cheeses were beautifully presented little squares, and had him making happy noises through his beard. I asked for the Pear Crumble – tiny, quite hard pears dipped in what seemed to be a very thin beignet batter, deep fried and sugared, accompanied by a smoked brie ice cream (creamily soft and not strong, but a good contrast to the pears), an unsugared walnut jelly and tiny cubes of black olive – surprisingly good with a mouthful of pear.
Coffee was excellent, and again, although only a few of us had asked for coffee, petits fours in the form of chocolates came for the whole table. White chocolate fondant, a creamy pumpkin square and a sesame ganache left us a family bursting at the seams, but absurdly happy. Thank you Anthony’s – we’ll be back.