Simon Richardson crosses the path of a black cat with Leeds’ most hotly anticipated tapas joint

EL Gato Negro has whipped up a frenzied, hungry storm from Ripponden to Manchester, Liverpool and then on to Leeds – what a journey. It should come as no surprise, then, that when we turn up for our 8pm booking on a Saturday night, it’s absolutely heaving. We can barely get through the door.

I react to cheese croquettes in the same gooey way that some people react to newborn babies

My senses are numbed by the cackles of drunk, middle-aged women and the bare chests of self-obsessed Mediterranean waiter wannabes. If this is your bag (and it’d be mine if I was with a big group of mates, to be fair), add 2 points to the 'atmosphere' score at the bottom of this review. We’re seated at what feels like a last-ditch effort at cramming in two more people. Not quite at the bar, not at a table, half the space of either. We’re attended to quickly and politely, and I get my laughing gear around a Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz gin and tonic (£11) – bloody lovely it is, too. It’s the start of a consistently excellent display of service.

2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Exterior 3
The recognisable black cat on Park Row

The starters – if such things really exist with tapas – turn up pretty rapidly and make bold first impressions. Pan Catalan (£4) is just as it should be, covered in generous amounts of well-seasoned, garlicy tomato, while the deep-fried goat’s cheese balls (Monte Enebro, £5) have been dipped in honey and cause me to declare that I could just order them another four or five times over and be happy… and sick.

2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Pan Catalan
Pan Catalan - good start
2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Deep Fried Cheese
Monte Enebro is the melty cheese within

From then on, the food arrives at random intervals, such that we’ve generally forgotten what we’ve ordered until it arrives – ideal tapas service. Pig's cheek empanadas (£2.50 each) are far more like pasties than empanadas (I later search the internet for mention of Simon Shaw’s 'cheeky Yorkshire twists', but find none). They come along with our salt cod croquettes (£6.80). Croquettes are the centrepiece of a Spanish evening for me – I react to cheese croquettes in the same gooey way that some people react to newborn babies. The texture is perfect but wait, what’s this? I look down at my hand to find that I’m adding salt. To salt cod croquettes. Oops.

2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Empanadas
Pasty-style pigs cheek empanadas
2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Salt Cod Croquettes
Not-so-salty salt cod croquettes

The spicy crab fritters (£7.50) miss the mark too, a confused muddle of flavours that taste much better if the mango sauce is disregarded all together. We get some bonus ham croquettes (£7) on the house at the same time though, and they’re a perfect return to form, with a delicate flavour that’s matched by a light yet crispy outer layer. They’re good at making things crispy here. I respect that. This is also the moment the wine arrives. I’ve never had a bad Monastrell, so we make a beeline for the excellent Viña Elena (£36) – these wines are always about the fruity aromas, and this one is all strawberry with a long, plummy aftertaste.

2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Spicy Crab
Crab fritters are crispy
2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Scotch Eggs
The black pudding Scotch eggs are famous

Moving on. Black pudding Scotch eggs (£9) come with delightfully runny quail eggs inside and a delicious bed of chopped mushrooms as an accompaniment. There’s little hint of an apple flavour though – perhaps the celeriac that slightly overpowered the Serrano ham (£6) would have been a better choice? The centrepiece of the meal, though, is the ox cheek (£7.50), served with an impossibly rich sauce and a melty potato purée. Shame about the button mushrooms – give me ceps any day. Ox cheek is a winner for pretty much everyone if it’s cooked for ages and it just falls apart. This is no exception: it’s dreamy.

2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Serrano Ham
Serrano ham and celeriac remoulade
2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Ox Cheek
Melt-in-the-mouth ox cheek

I’d order it again, but my t-shirt has already ripped open, revealing an enormous comedic potbelly, so it’s probably best we move on to dessert. It’s chocolate tart (£6.50) – I defer to my partner as she’s something of an expert. I’m told it isn’t chocolatey enough. I personally think it’s fine, but then I’d eat a bin lid if it was smeared in chocolate.

2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Chocolate Tart
Chocolate tart - certainly looks chocolatey
2019 11 22 Leeds El Gato Negro Bloody Shiraz Gin
Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz gin and tonic

Roll me home, then. It’s died down considerably as we look around, and the general atmosphere is all the better for it. I spot triathlon legend Alistair Brownlee at a table (the highlight of my evening) and leave quickly, like the panicked fanboy that I am. Would I go back? I think I made the decision to do so about halfway through my first bite into that deep-fried goat’s cheese. Granted, it’s hit and miss, but there are more home runs than strikes. I wouldn’t dream of going back on a Saturday night, though. Oh no.  

El Gato Negro, 35 Park Row, LS1 5JL

2019 11 25 El Gato Negro Receipt Leeds

The scores:

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.

  • Food 7/10

    Pan Catalan 9, Monte Enebro 9, empanadas 6, salt cod croquettes 6, crab fritters 5, ham croquettes 8, Scotch eggs 7, serrano ham 8, ox cheek 8, chocolate tart 6

  • Service 5/5

    Overflowing with attentive and observant staff

  • Atmosphere 2/5

    Too loud to hear yourself think – perhaps better on weekdays?