The Best of 2015 – The Black Swan at Oldstead

Fine Dining Review

This Summer, I got engaged. I’ll spare you the details, but it was perfect. There was a picnic, a beautiful view of Ilkley Moor, the traditional ‘down on one knee’ – the boy did good.

Ilkley Moor

A proposal with a view

After I stopped screaming and eventually remembered to say yes, Rob handed me a piece of paper. Titled ‘The Lisa Farrell Engagement menu’, it mapped out Rob’s ‘thank God you said yes, let’s celebrate!’ plans. Hands still trembling, I skimmed the menu to find seven very exciting words:

Trip to The Black Swan at Oldstead

I confess, I didn’t know much about The Black Swan at Oldstead. I knew it existed. I knew it was one of Yorkshire’s six Michelin Star restaurants. And to be honest, that was enough. But I continued reading, eyes widening at words like ‘canapés’, ‘tasting menu’ and ‘lots of wine’. Yep, Rob knows me well. It sounded like the perfect way to celebrate our engagement, but what I didn’t realise was that The Black Swan at Oldstead was not only about to become my best meal of 2015, but of my entire life.

Letting the last five minutes sink in, I sipped prosecco as Rob explained why he’d chosen The Black Swan. He had me at vegetables. Because somehow, he’d managed to find that rare Michelin Star restaurant that puts vegetables on a pedestal. Where a tomato is as prized as a fillet steak. Where vegetables aren’t an accompaniment to a dish; they’re the main event. I downed my prosecco and we packed away our picnic, Rob’s words fluttering in my stomach like confetti. Too good to be true? Let’s see, shall we?

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Introducing Mill Kitchen, Farsley

 cafe-review

This post originally featured on The Culture Vulture

Like most people in Leeds, I’ve got a lot of love for our indie food businesses. So. Much. Love. Breaking up the homogeny of the chains that often make UK cities indistinguishable from one another, our indies give Leeds an identity as a city that loves to eat, that cares about what it eats, and that wants to share this love and care with as many likeminded people as possible.

But whilst the lure of Leeds’ independent food scene is undeniable, how many of us regularly venture outside of the city centre to get our foodie fix? I admit it – I’m as guilty as anyone, unable to resist the lure of old faithfuls like La Bottega Milanese (for the best coffee and pasticcini in Leeds), Belgrave Music Hall‘s Dough Boys (for that pizza) and the glorious Lazy Lounge (for ALL the gin, obviously), to name but a few.

But take a look beyond the city centre, and you’ll find a plethora of community-driven, local heroes that challenge some of the city’s finest establishments in terms of quality and value for money. They’re often those ‘on your doorstep’ gaffs that you’ve overlooked for whatever reason, but give them a try and the rewards can be sweet. This was true of my beloved local restaurant Ephesus, which I’ve shared with the good readers of The Culture Vulture before, and now there’s another corker opened just a few minutes up the road. Mill Kitchen.

My first introduction to Mill Kitchen was a strange one, one of those ‘what a small world’ stories that come in handy when there’s a conversation lull. I was in London for an evening of food writing inspiration from The Guardian’s Felicity Cloake, when I got chatting to a lady called Ailsa over a glass of the free wine. After a few minutes of chatting, we discovered that not only had we both travelled down from Leeds, but that we lived just minutes apart – Ailsa in Farsley, me in Rodley. Then Ailsa told me why she was in Farsley – she’d just moved there from Oxford to open a new café in Sunny Bank Mills.

What Ailsa revealed about the café that evening got me excited. Whilst I love living in Rodley, it’s definitely rocking a ‘bijoux’ vibe when it comes to quality food establishments. Mill Kitchen sounded just what the area needed – a café deli serving fresh, healthy and locally-sourced food, cooked with passion and imagination.

That first conversation was seven months ago. Mill Kitchen opened just over a month later, and it had me at hello. Seriously. The food is everything Ailsa described it would be, and more: exciting, inventive food that demonstrates the benefits of using, and understanding, quality ingredients and seasonal fruit and vegetables. The tarts are amazing, the cakes are sublime, the coffee is perfect, and the salads are out of this world. And then there’s the leek rarebit. Seriously, the leek rarebit.  Think soft sautéed leeks, bobbing in a bubbling béchamel sauce and perched atop a piece of Leeds Bread Coop’s sourdough. Yeah, I know. Throw in the character and charm of Sunny Bank Mills, a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and a deli full of quality local food and drink products, and you’ve got a serious contender for Leeds’ best café on your hands. Trust me, it’s that good.

Mill Kitchen, Farsley

Mill Kitchen, Farsley

Mill Kitchen is the sort of place that’s far too good to keep a secret, so to share the love, I’ll hand you over to the lady herself – Ailsa Youngson. Over a pot of fresh mint tea and a slice (or two) of some of her incredible cakes, I caught up with Ailsa to find out more about the inspiration for Mill Kitchen, her future plans (which include a Supper Club on 19 December – oh YES), and how she caught the cooking bug. Over to Ailsa…

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Cornucopia Underground

festival-review Back in August, I wrote about my impending ten year anniversary of living in Leeds. Ten years. Where has that time gone? Moving to Leeds was the best decision I ever made and so, a decade on, it was only right that that decision should be celebrated in style. As ever, my beloved Leeds came up trumps with the ultimate anniversary present – Leeds Food and Drink Association’s Cornucopia Underground. When I previewed Cornucopia Underground for the Culture Vulture in August, I knew we were in for something special. A food festival with a difference, Cornucopia Underground promised to celebrate Leeds’ well-documented independent spirit with a showcase of some of the best food and drink experiences the city has to offer. With Leeds Food and Drink Association’s Jo and Nick at the helm, I knew we’d be in safe hands, but the reality of Cornucopia Underground surpassed even my wildest expectations. Descending into the subterranean lair of the Corn Exchange at just before midday, there were no immediate signs of anything out of the ordinary. Filling the basement’s centre were stalls laden with all the usual hallmarks we’ve come to expect of a ‘food festival’: mouth-watering cakes, beautifully-presented preserves and enticing cheeses.

Cornucopia Underground, Leeds

Photo Credit: Jo Murricane http://www.jo-blogs.co.uk/

Harrogate Preserves at Cornucopia Underground, Leeds

Photo Credit: Jo Murricane http://www.jo-blogs.co.uk/

These stalls surrounded tables swathed in patterned cloths that were occupied by folk sipping on tea, munching on cake and generally having a good time. Everything was in order. But Cornucopia Underground was about looking beyond the obvious; beyond what you’d expect, and it was the spaces around the edges that revealed that all was not as it seemed. Continue reading

A day at Beacons Festival

festival-reviewdest-yorkshiredales

At the age of 23, I decided to take early retirement from festivals. I had LOVED going to festivals so it wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but I felt like my hand had been forced. It was Leeds Fest, 2009, and I’d just woken up after a less-than-successful night’s sleep in a mildew-ridden tent. But it wasn’t the smell of damp that woke me, or even an overpriced beer-induced hangover. It was our neighbours.

“So, what did you get in your GCSEs, then?” one male voice squeaked, followed by a cacophony of responses; some gloating, some ‘I’m-too-cool-to-care-about-exams’ nonchalant. GCSEs? What did that make them, FIFTEEN?! No. No, no no. Their chorus droned on and on until they were told to lower their voices by an older-sounding voice. Thank GOD. I peeked my head out of the tent door to see who it was, ready to shake their hand and offer them a beer, but I stopped myself. That older voice didn’t belong to a fellow disgruntled camper, it belonged to one of two chaperones accompanying a group that looked barely old enough to be in high school, let alone sitting GCSEs.

That was it. I was too old for this. Festivals, it seemed, were to be one of those activities that I’d have to admit defeat to, along with wearing crop tops and dancing until 3am. I would always look back at them with fond memories, but they were no longer for me. I was no longer for them.

But things change. Dancing until 3am has made a triumphant comeback in my life, thanks to the ingenious swapping of sticky-floored clubs for my best friend’s kitchen and a fully-stocked fridge of chablis and cava. The crop top has also crept back into my wardrobe, albeit styled more conservatively with a high-waisted, midi 50s-stye skirt and only a slither of midriff on show. And over the last few years, I’ve been forced to reconsider my blanket festival veto after realising that maybe, I’d just been going to the wrong festivals. As I’ve travelled through my 20s at startling speed, I’ve discovered that there are so many other festivals to choose from; festivals that, like my newly demure crop tops and chablis-fuelled 3am dancing, offer a different, varied and more fulfilling experience for my older self than the teen-filled hell that made me swear off festivals for life.

Festivals like Beacons.

CREDIT: Giles Smith

CREDIT: Giles Smith

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Bundobust

Warning: this is another gushing post about my love of Leeds’ collaborative spirit. I know, I know. It’s a topic that features regularly in my Leeds-based posts, but that’s because it’s so bloody fantastic. Leeds is a city characterised by the spirit of its independents; independents who work with, not against, each other to create a city-wide food and drink offer that’s earned Leeds the reputation of being one of the country’s tastiest cities. Think Belgrave Music Hall’s Street Feast. Gusto Italiano at Lazy Lounge. The almighty brethren of organisations that make up the Leeds Food and Drink Association. And, as of this July, Bundobust.

Bundobust is a very special collaboration, combining the might of two award-winning purveyors of fine food and drink. On the food side you’ve got Prashad, a Leeds-based Indian vegetarian restaurant that propelled to infamy when it was crowned runner-up in Ramsay’s best restaurant of 2010. All that spice needs a special kind of sup to complement and refresh, and that’s where The Sparrow comes in. A Bradford-based craft beer bar, The Sparrow has racked up an impressive mantelpiece of accolades including a spot in The Guardian’s top 10 UK craft beer bars, Shortlist magazine’s top 10 UK pubs and the title of Bradford’s CAMRA pub of the year in 2012. Beer and Indian food are a beautiful combination indeed, so The Sparrow and Prashad have united to create Bundobust – a craft beer bar with an Indian vegetarian street food kitchen. Lucky Leeds.

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Degustation at The Man Behind the Curtain

 

Disclaimer: I was invited to sample The Man Behind the Curtain’s Degustation menu free of charge in exchange for an honest, unbiased review on The Culture Vulture (where this post originally featured). 

PEA at The Man Behind the Curtain

PEA at The Man Behind the Curtain

I’m staring at my plate. Not eating, just staring. My partner has given up waiting for me, devouring the dish on his plate with a symphony of satisfied noises that are slowly weakening my resolve. I want to join him; I’m dying to join him, but not yet. I need to relish this moment for just a little bit longer.

Seconds before, the dish on this plate was just a string of enigmatic words. “PEA,” the menu read. “Hot and cold.” The chef arrived, clutching a trio of silver pots, a steaming silver jug and a frosted glass dish. It began simply; a lime green quenelle perched on the glass dish, adorned with a sprinkle of crispy onions and a few delicate leaves. Then it happened. I watched as my plate became a canvas, daubed with layers of colour by our chef-turned-expressionist artist. A splash of green, followed by swirls of purple, orange and crimson. It was extraordinary. The chef stood back, admired his masterpiece, then returned to the kitchen; his pointed silver heels clicking as he walked.

I think I’m ready. I take my spoon and reluctantly disturb the painting, scooping up each of the layers. I put the spoon in my mouth. And I start laughing. I can’t help it; it’s genius. Mirroring the expressionist flair with which the chef created the dish in front of me, the flavours of each layer surge in colourful waves around my mouth. There’s the sweet creaminess of the ice cream, the tangy crunch of the crispy onions, the rich intensity of the pea soup. I take another slurp and the flavours intensify, seasoned by notes of bitterness and sweetness from the beetroot, carrot and red cabbage foams. I don’t want this dish to end. It’s a masterpiece. A Michael O’Hare masterpiece.

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A vegetarian in Andalucía

dest-andaluciaBook review

This week, I returned from my second trip to the glorious province of Málaga, in Andalucía. With its flavours still flamenco-dancing (sorry…) on my taste buds, I present to you the food of Andalucía – veggie style.

If you’re a veggie eating out in Andalucía, you can be sure of three things. Menus will read like a homage to dead animals, waiters and waitresses will react to your vegetarian requests with confusion, and many of the so-called ‘veggie options’ they suggest will be inexplicably adorned with a tuna garnish. A haven for meat eaters, sure. But veggies? Not so much.

It was OK, though. I was prepared for this. Before my first visit to Andalucía last October, I got my mitts on The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden. If you’ve got a penchant for Spanish cuisine, you need this book in your life. A gastronomical encyclopaedia that leaves no Spanish culinary stone unturned, Roden’s introduction to Andalucía primed me for the meat lover’s paradise I was about to enter. The beautiful, wild sierras which were to form the backdrop for much of our first trip last October? Pig country. And not any old pigs, either. The sierras are the playground of Pata Negra pigs; revered Spanish creatures that feast on sweet acorns in Andalucia’s oak woods before they land on plates as the world-famous jamón ibérico. Friends of ham, you’re very welcome here. As well as Andalucía’s gourmet pigs, Roden also writes fondly of local delicacies such as rabo de toro (oxtail stew) and cordero a la miel (lamb stew with honey), and of extraordinary varieties of seafood and fish thanks to Andalucía’s vast coastline where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean.

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Prashad: Indian Vegetarian Cooking

Book review
Once upon a time, a curly-haired girl slumped in her kitchen and sighed. Her worktop resembled the aftermath of Holi; a trail of spices that she’d toasted, roasted and ground to the recipe’s precise instructions. And the result? Yet another failure. Maybe she just didn’t have what it took. Dejected, she was about to reach for the takeaway menu, when a fairy godmother appeared. Tearing the menu before the girl could use it, the fairy godmother encouraged her not to give up. “You can do it, I promise.” So the girl tried once more, this time guided by the fairy godmother’s expertise, reassurance and passion. And everything changed.

That fairy godmother was Kaushy Patel, and to say that she’s transformed the way that this curly-haired girl feels about Indian cookery would be an understatement. She’s given me a confidence that I never thought I’d have; a confidence to not only succeed in creating Indian dishes that taste good, but to also make these dishes a staple in my weekly diet. A midweek curry, after work, made from scratch? No biggie, thanks to Kaushy and the wise words eloquently woven through her debut cookbook, Prashad.

Prashad cookbook

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Grubstaker Launch – An evening of food and wine pairing

review

Food collaboration is a wonderful thing. Think goats’ cheese and honey. Garlic and mushrooms. Tomato and basil. Simple ingredients that work perfectly well as individual elements, when they come together they seem to undergo an alchemic process that produces flavours akin to food magic. How else could you describe that sensation of a sharp, tangy cheese cutting through a golden, saccharine honey; that heavenly combination of earthy mushrooms and pungent garlic; that sweet tomato acidity matched with a burst of aromatic peppery basil? And best of all, you don’t have to be the world’s greatest cook to achieve this alchemy. You don’t even need to know why. The ingredients do the work for you. See? Magic.

But while pairing certain flavours together is second nature to many of us, the thought of applying these principles to food and wine pairing is, well, not. Because wine is scary. Lovely, but scary. There are just too many variables to consider. Which grape varietal should you choose? How does that grape varietal vary from country to country? And what about specific regions? Vintages? Reserves? Oaked or unoaked? Should you let the wine breathe, first? (And what does that even mean?!) How do you know if it’s corked? Is cork better than screwtop? And that’s all before you’ve even begun to contemplate what bloody food you’re going to pair it with. Gahhhh.

So is it worth the hassle?

Yes. I quickly arrived at this conclusion last week at a special wine and food matching event to celebrate the launch of Leeds Food and Drink Association’s (LFDA) Grubstakers. In case you’ve not heard about it, Grubstakers are a pretty special bunch. An LFDA initiative aimed at Leeds’ food and drink lovers, a one-off £25 subscription gets you a lifetime of food and drink benefits. Yes, a lifetime. We’re talking special events, exclusive insider info, opportunities to test products and menus, and all sorts of amazing ‘money can’t buy’ foodie opportunities from the glorious Leeds indies that belong to the LFDA.

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A taste of Asian street food in Leeds

 review

This post originally featured on The Culture Vulture.

I’ll never forget my first experience of street food. It was August 2011, a time when street food in the UK meant a stomach ache from a dodgy van rather than an £8 ‘gourmet’ burger from a shopping centre. The arts sector had just taken its first series of sizeable whacks from the government, and I’d taken voluntary redundancy from my lovely arts job. But it was ok, because I was in possession of a round the world ticket with a return date of February 2012 – screw you, reality!

Our first stop was Bangkok, the start of a six-week food crawl around South East Asia. Like millions of travellers before me, I’d been enticed by beguiling accounts of Asia’s street food; of heaving streets packed with tiny tin cooking stations radiating the intoxicating aromas of dishes I couldn’t even pronounce. I was so excited and I remember that first night so clearly; walking slowly down each street in a giddy trance as I was guided by the seductive scents wafting from bubbling cauldrons and hissing woks.

But there was a problem. Me. Striking at the most inopportune of times, my awkward veggie syndrome meant I was all but excluded from street food fun times. I wandered from street to street, visiting cart after cart only to be met with endless varieties of meat and fish. It became my nemesis throughout Asia and I persisted, learning the phrase for “do you have anything vegetarian” in Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai and Malaysian, but my efforts were continually met with stares of confusion. I finally gave up, taking my exploration indoors where I tasted some of the most fantastic dishes of my entire life. But still, my Asian street food flame flickered. ONE day, veggie Asian street food joy would be mine.

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