Jenessa Williams tries out the modern incarnation of this stalwart Call Lane venue
Let’s make no bones about it – in a year of independent closures and administration whispers within the city centre, it’s a success that Arts Café remains open at all. Having initially opened in 1994, the bistro earned a good name for its locally-sourced produce and intimate service, but was in desperate need of modernisation to compete with the chain brands popping up along Call Lane.
the handcut chips are of a size that could be considered a personal weapon
With new owners Matt Long and Stu Butterworth at the helm (directors of Canal Mills and this summer’s Chow Down events in Halifax), Arts Café are making a keen bid to secure longevity. The awnings have had a lick of paint, the menus refreshed and a whole abundance of new, locally procured artwork ordered to adorn the walls.
We arrive on a rainy Monday to a near-empty restaurant and polite service – unassuming and casual, befitting of a restaurant of this size.
Dimly lit and favouring a Scandinavian palette of dulled pastels and greys, the romantic refit certainly suits them. New, matching menus are still arriving as we are – halfway through perusing our choices they are swept out from under our noses in favour of new, minimal matte ones. It’s hard to complain when a ginormous pink gin goblet (£4.90) is plonked down beside it – a veritable bath of a beverage, it is well put together, bursting with a generous potion of plump strawberries and raspberries.
The generosity continues with my starter of mussels (£6.50) – at least twenty of the buggers crowd the serving bowl, ready for me to de-shell and devour. Despite their size, they make for a light and tasty starter, swimming in a tomato, herb and mushroom juice that soaks pleasingly into doorstop bread. I’m making a huge mess, but who cares?
My dining partner is similarly satisfied – nursing a cold, he opts for the sweet potato and chilli soup (£5.95) and feels swiftly restored. Sneaking my own spoonful, I can see why – chilli, almond and coriander all come together to temper any cloyingness, creating subtle Indian flavours.
Barely ten minutes from clearing our first plates, the mains arrive – definitely taking advantage of the evening’s reasonably quiet footfall.
My partner’s fish and chips (£14) isn't going to set the world alight aesthetically, but it’s certainly delicious – the fish as fresh as you could hope, encased in crunchy, non-greasy batter. While the handcut chips are of a size that could be considered a personal weapon, they mop up the tartar sauce well, tasting reassuringly of potato rather than oil.
My main is a little more of a conflict. Pan-seared chicken breast (£14.95) is perfectly cooked and seasoned, pairing well with the mushroom ketchup, which favours sweetness over a traditional ketchup tang. Together with a spoonful of bacon, pea and artichoke, it's a lovely mouthful, let down only by the chicken leg croquette – overcooked, oily and tasteless, it resembles a dodgy Kiev and certainly doesn’t fit the elegance of the rest of the dish. Bin the bon bon and swap out some of the artichoke for a crunchy roastie or two, and you'd have a winner.
In the interests of a thorough examination, we just about find room for pudding. My chocolate brownie (£6.50) is an absolute dream – open-textured and light on appearance, it envelops my spoon in stickiness, the juicy cherries adding to the decadence. I take the thing down in less than 90 seconds and feel thoroughly pleased with myself.
Across the table, my partner is having less of a good time. We applaud a restaurant that makes an effort with its dairy-free puddings, but there is no getting around the fact that the almond milk panna cotta (£5.95) is a pretty watery and overset creation. Were they to swap it out for hazelnut milk, or even a chocolate-flavoured soya, you feel it could fare a lot better, but as is, the almond brittle tuile is the only bit worth finishing.
So where does Arts Café stand in this incarnation? Only a couple of weeks into their new skin, there’s plenty to admire but also plenty to work on. With the ambience and pricing on point, there are lots of small menu tweaks that could turn this humble bistro into something very special indeed. In a good location and with generous portions, it’s a great spot for a midweek treat away from the central hustle and bustle of the city centre. Just steer clear of that panna cotta…
Arts Café, 42 Call Ln, Leeds LS1 6DT
Follow Jenessa Williams on Twitter @jnessr
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Mussels 8, Soup 8, Fish And Chips 7, Chicken 7, Brownie 8, Panna Cotta 3
Pleasant and speedy enough, nothing particularly above or beyond
Cosy, intimate and stylish – the perfect atmosphere for a low-key date