Thursday, 19 July 2012

Livebait, Leeds


It's a brave person who takes on a large restaurant in the current economic climate, especially a seafood restaurant in a not particularly prominent location.

Paramount restaurants, the previous owners of Livebait (and other brands) went into administration last year and a start-up group, SBG Restaurants, have now taken on the Leeds and Manchester sites. Although a new company, it appears that SBG is run by people with plenty of experience in the industry, I just hope they're aiming for quality and not the rapid chain expansion that tends to bring about the opposite.

First impressions were good, I liked the cut of their jib when they invited me down to try the new menu. There were none of the subtle (or not so subtle) hints at a favourable review that you sometimes get with this sort of thing, and the menu itself read well too, with just nine starters and nine mains, each of them sounding appetising. According to the website they'll also be seeking Marine Stewardship Council accreditation in the new year.

Of course I accepted the offer, a good seafood restaurant is an asset to any city, so with any luck it'd be good and I'd be able to say positive things about the place. That and I might get to fill my face with shellfish for nowt.

An oyster is always a good test of skill with shellfish. A badly shucked oyster is no fun at all. Gritty, bitty and devoid of juice they can repulse me on the way down, whereas a fat, fresh, properly shucked oyster can be a thing of beauty. 

This one was happily in the latter camp. All the lovely briney juice had been retained and it was plump and cold. With nothing but a squeeze of lemon and a quick chew on the way down it was marvellous.

My starter proper was gazpacho with Whitby crab meat. The soup was great, smooth and bright with a little bite of chilli on the aftertaste. In the unlikely event of a hot summer's day this would be just the thing. The crab was sweet and fresh, but it's delicate taste did get a bit lost in the stronger soup.

AS had the feta cheese, red onion and watermelon salad, also a great summer dish, this time in the tried and tested formula of something cold, sweet and juicy with something salty and savoury (cheese or ham with most fruits I suppose). It worked.

I've eaten plenty of oysters, and quite a lot of crab, but my lobster knowledge is completely lacking. As a consequence you'll have to forgive me for not having a very developed opinion of my lobster thermidor.

The meat was very sweet and mostly tender with the occasional chewier bit. I liked it and thought it worked well with the mustardy sauce and crusty cheese (gruyere or something similar) topping. Being a big fan of fish pie I'm generally in favour of the seafood and cheese combo in certain situations, and this was one of those. The chips, fried to a rustling crispy brown, were tasty but I'd have preferred them cut thinner.

AS had the lamb rump with dauphinoise potatoes, and declared it a success although the meat was perhaps slightly too rare. If you're wondering what the hell she was doing ordering no fish or seafood in a fish and seafood restaurant the annoyance of an allergy is to blame rather than an aversion to the stuff.

My Eton mess was an unexpected highlight. I didn't particularly think much effort would have been made with pudding, but I was wrong. By doing two simple things that many places don't bother with this was an excellent dessert.

Firstly it was made with proper meringue with proper gooey, chewy bits and not the pointless bought in stuff that turns to dust on impact. Secondly it had been recently assembled ensuring that the cream and meringue remained distinct from one another, and not prepped many hours ago and left for everything to soak together into a general sweet mush. Well done.

An affogato was also really very good. Good quality ice cream and a strong espresso. Simple but delicious.

Service was excellent throughout, from Tom the General Manager who looked after us, and from one of the other waitresses. Ok, ok, so this was a complimentary meal and only a handful of other tables were occupied, hardly the most challenging of circumstances in which to look after us, but if they can provide anything like a similar standard at busy times then they're doing very well.

On the prices front, it ain't cheap, but seafood isn't and isn't ever going to be. Once you've got over this fact I'd say the prices at Livebait are probably about right. Starters from £5, mains from £11 through to £35 for a whole lobster, and the wine list has a few bottles for under £20. Our bill would have been around £80 including service, two glasses of a decent Albarino and one of Pinot Noir.

On this evidence I'd definitely return to Livebait and spend my own money. Of course it's hard to tell with a freebie but they have a good team who seem to be doing things the right way, and I'd be very surprised if it didn't turn out to be consistently better than the obvious competition. Give it a try.

11-15 Wharf Street

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