I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it, us Leeds folk are a lucky lot. Our city is strewn with a vast array of fine establishments, and frankly, we’re spoilt for choice. I know, I know – poor us. Driven by this variety of choice, everyone seems to have an opinion on ‘the place to go’ for every possible food and entertainment niche, and I’m definitely no different.
Want exceptional coffee? La Bottega Milanese is your place. Cheese fiend? Look no further than Homage2Fromage, who will sate all of your dairy desires. The best Turkish food in the city? My beloved Ephesus can’t be beaten. And if you’re in the city centre and hankering for live music of the soulful variety, those in the know would always make The Wardrobe their first stop.
A shining beacon of Leeds’ music scene, The Wardrobe has earned a solid reputation as one of our city’s most exciting music venues. A champion of eclectic soul music, it’s a musical mecca that, like Brudenell Social Club in Hyde Park, has become the place to go for the quality gigs performed in its atmospheric, underground lair. And with a very well-stocked Brooklyn-esque bar blasting an equally stellar playlist, its reputation as one of the best venues in Leeds is unquestionable.
But is it somewhere you’d go to eat?
This was the question on my mind a couple of weeks ago. After receiving an invitation from Emma at The Culture Vulture to attend a special food bloggers event at The Wardrobe, I pondered my past dalliances with its restaurant. My memories of the food were positive, but I struggled to conjure anything more than that.
And this was telling. When a restaurant is really good, I’m the sort of slightly odd girl that can recall the exact components of my starter, main and dessert, no matter how long ago I went. But with The Wardrobe, all I had was ‘good’. There seemed to be something lacking, a confusion of direction and purpose that meant although the food was good, The Wardrobe was never somewhere that would be battling for your attention with the titans of Leeds’ food scene. Was this due to a reliance on the patronage of hungry gig-goers? An over-emphasis on the pre-theatre crowd? Or perhaps a confused food offer that, although good, just couldn’t compete with the likes of Kendells and Aahgrah that steal the lion’s share of trade at that end of town?
Whatever the answer, that was then. The Wardrobe has recently acquired new owners who were equally confused by the purpose of the restaurant, and have set out on a mission to correct this. The need to forge a distinct food offer that matched the ethos of the venue was clear, and lo, The Soul Kitchen was born. A new venture for The Wardrobe, The Soul Kitchen replaces the previous food offer with a new style and direction that’s more in keeping with the venue. It’s early days, so along with a group of food bloggers rounded up by the Culture Vulturess herself, I was invited to The Soul Kitchen to sample the new menu and find out more about what this new direction means for The Wardrobe. It’s a hard life…
As you’ll probably have deduced from the name, The Soul Kitchen has its roots in the deep south, Caribbean and Creole cuisine. It’s about comfort food – hearty dishes that warm your soul and plant an enormous, satisfied smile on your face. And reading the menu as the soulful sounds from The Wardrobe stereo tingled in our ears, first impressions were a resounding YES. THIS is what The Wardrobe should be doing. THIS is the thing that’s been missing. THIS is what makes sense.
Amongst us 12 or so bloggers, a gargantuan feast was served up. Dish after dish appeared, each the foodie equivalent of a great big hug from your mum, squeezing you full of warmth. To encourage sharing, dishes were presented on the restaurant staple, the wooden board, but no encouragement was necessary – the portions were HUGE.
Particular favourites for me were the ‘No Bull Burger’ – a colossal slab of creole beans, leeks and bell peppers, wedged in a freshly-made bun and served with chunky, homemade chips. Veggie burgers are so often an afterthought, but here the burger was a stunning dish in its own right, appealing to the carnivores as well as us veggies. For the meat eaters, enormous hunks of steak were placed before widening eyes around the table, accompanied by heaving side plates of sweet potatoes, slaws and rice and peas. It wasn’t elegant dining, but it was sociable, greed-feeding cuisine that left us feeling totally full, but very content afterwards.
This wasn’t just an evening to gorge though, (although we did plenty of that!). Rather than being invited to just spread the word through our networks, we were asked to give our honest feedback about The Soul Kitchen. We spent hours after the meal chatting with The Wardrobe’s Tom, talking at length about everything from their portion sizes and how they served their food, to the qualities that an exceptional mac and cheese should have. Perhaps a little too much length on this last point, but the food bloggers of Leeds clearly like their mac and cheese!
And although we gave our feedback freely, this conversation was predominantly driven by Tom. He listened, scribbled frantically, answered questions and explained the thoughts behind the dishes and the way they were served, but without the protective ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ approach that some restaurants may be inclined to deliver.
I loved this. This wasn’t a restaurant blindly launching a new menu and telling us what we should like, but rather a restaurant eager to hear what we liked about what they’re doing, and what they could change. How often do you go to restaurants and the menu is the same for seasons, or even years, on end? Since softly launching The Soul Kitchen at the start of August, Tom told us that they only did a print run of 100 menus to allow for modification based on customer feedback, and they’ve already rewritten the menu and taken dishes off based on this. It’s not about trying to please everyone, but in an age where restaurants open and close all-too often, taking this customer-led approach is a clever move, and one that I hope will reap huge rewards for The Soul Kitchen.
And they’re so very nearly there. With The Soul Kitchen, The Wardrobe is bringing a concept to Leeds that many restaurants skirt around, but no one gets completely right. Yes, we’ve all had a good burger or a good mac and cheese, but The Soul Kitchen is channeling the soulful spirit that the venue is renowned for to make it THE place for some of the most comforting soul food that you’ll find this side of the pond. Bring it ON.