Simon Richardson discovers that Scandinavian food culture isn’t all about the Vikings.
AT some point in the 2000s, Leeds exploded. It started with the Light in 2001, then there was City Island (2004), the transformation of Leeds Dock (2004-2006), Bridgewater Place (2005), Trinity (2013) and Victoria Gate (2016).
I could go on of course, but you get the idea. Leeds became a big city, and with its newfound clout came the noise of a city. Bright lights, packed bars, louder music and flashier restaurants. If something new comes along now, it’s seized upon by a frenzied population, driven by the urge to discover. It’s a rare thing these days in Leeds to find a restaurant that’s understated, under the radar and laid back, especially one that’s quite so deliberately chilled out as Fettle. But then, Fettle isn’t a restaurant; it’s a café that happens to masquerade as a restaurant for three nights a week. I’ll tell you what though: it’s damn good.
As I walk in to Fettle, the Scandinavian style washes over me. The simple whites and natural lighting personify the minimalism that has become the signature of a great many cafés and eateries across the country. But this is a place that insists that you are comfortable.
As I sit down, the chair gives me a massive hug as part of a dual attack in tandem with the soothing music, to the point where I’m surprised to find a menu in my hands instead of a pillow. Fortunately, my stomach – as always - wins the battle of wills with my brain, so I get down to business. The waiter takes a seat next to me as if he’s about to read me a delicious bedtime story. “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…”
The menu is awash with post-script abbreviations that tell me this place must be a hit with vegetarians, vegans and “non-glutenous” people. I have no such concerns though and go straight for the maple roasted chorizo (£4.25) and some padron peppers (£4) as appetisers. The peppers are fresh-tasting with just a touch of lemon, but they’re merely an understudy to the chorizo, which is beautiful – the sweetness of the maple is deployed with a subtlety that, I later discover, is a strong hint of things to come.
For starters, a Swedish meatball dish with tzatziki (£6) is as simple and elegant as the décor, but the mackerel pâté is a fantastically well-constructed dish; the immediate smokiness of the mackerel being perfectly tempered by the sweetness of a delicate layering of kumquat and the added crunch of fresh fennel.
I’m on a roll now, and the kitchen has got the goods to match my gluttonous momentum. A succulent, pink-cooked duck breast with more kumquat on a bed of ginger sweet potato mash (£17) is promoted from average to good by some wonderfully smoky pak choi, while the salmon dish is a clever take on sushi; a soft, pink salmon fillet with wasabi tahini, a miso glaze and smoky beetroot – so many flavours, but all so subtle and so carefully thought-out.
A side order of potato salad with dill and fennel compliments both dishes superbly. I round off my culinary journey with an almost-mulled red wine poached pear (£6.25), the heat of the wine providing a pleasing contrast to the cold of the ice cream and the crunch of the granola that accompany the fruit.
And there’s the theme that runs through the Fettle menu; satisfyingly contrasting textures and flavours, but all tantalisingly subtle and understated, just like the restaurant itself. It’s a perfect marriage.
I should mention at this point, in case you’re concerned, that I haven’t done this without the essential accompaniment of delicious alcohol. However, I can only credit myself for the choice, as Fettle is currently BYO on the booze front.
Their own drinks menu is a comprehensive display of modern superfood smoothies, shakes and juices that I would need a translator to decipher. I try a kombucha with ginger (£3.50) and immediately wish I hadn’t Googled it before putting it to my lips. Who knew fermented bacterial tea could be so palatable? Not me, that’s for sure.
Time to finish with a coffee – this is a café after all - and take myself off home before I get any more comfortable.
I’ll be honest: Fettle really shouldn’t be my kind of restaurant. In terms of Scandinavian culture and food, I take my lead far more from the caricatured Vikings of the TV world than the minimalist movement of the mid-20th century.
I’m also about as subtle and understated as a brick to the face. But nothing forces a meeting of minds quite like truly excellent food, so I’ll be back to sample their day menu, and to accidentally fall asleep and dribble over their soft furnishings. You should give it a try too, because for a restaurant serving food as excellent as this to be half empty on a Friday night, is absolutely criminal.
Fettle Cafe, 73 Great George St, Leeds LS1 3BR
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.
Chorizo 10, Mackerel Pate 9, Meatballs 7, Duck 7.5, Salmon 9, Poached Pear 8
Comfortable and well-lit, but a bit soporific if you want to go out afterwards
Laid back, friendly and attentive