D&D’s roster of restaurants is like an expensive art collection. When Des Gunewardena and David Loewi led a management buy-out of Conran Restaurants a decade ago they inherited some wonderful creations from Sir Terence, the old master – Quaglino’s, Orrery, Le Pont de la Tour, Bluebird, Blueprint Cafe and the like – but their own trajectory in restauration has since been little short of spectacular.
Crafthouse? It sounds like it ought to be weaving artisan sourdough or being stupidly lavish with hops in a faux-rustic barn
35 establishments at the last count, taking in Paris, New York and Tokyo, but primarily London, where Angler and Launceston Place each hold a Michelin star. I’ve been to a handful. They share an undeniable sheen and a certain costly collectibility… but are they Art? Or just Commerce?
Henry Moore and Atkinson Grimshaw mean art with a capital A in Leeds, monumental and crepuscular respectively in the civic galleries that house them. Set in stone. Framed for posterity. D&D’s first northern venture, Crafthouse, beautiful to look at, is only as good as its latest meal. Aestheticlally, no matter how prettily their platefuls are, at a top end price level they are competing in this city centre with Michael O’Hare at The Man Behind the Curtain, the Dali of dishes, the maverick who could put the Jackson into pollock. Not everyone’s avant garde shot of absinthe, but you get our drift.
Not that Crafthouse’s punters might crave all that ponciness. At 8pm on a Friday evening, the place is buzzing like a swarm of hornets. I expect casual bar Angelica upstairs is equally rammed.
Crafthouse? It sounds like it ought to be weaving artisan sourdough or being stupidly lavish with hops in a faux-rustic barn. Not so. It’s as slick as a gelled quiff in its glass starship atop the Trinity mall. Service is immediately impressive. We are early. We expect to be shunted to the bar but are guided to our table, which thankfully is not hubbub central.
So far so good but when the ordering starts it gets complicated. Starters of seared duck liver (main image) for my lovely pal, veal sweetbreads for me please; respective mains of muntjac deer with nasturtium root and wild Yorkshire rabbit. ‘Thank you, sir, I’ll bring your wine.”
Return of said waiter. Sweetbreads are finished, so I take a slurp of the priciest house wine I can recall and order escargots instead. Cue waiter back again – the last of the deer has been sold. So Norfolk longhorn lamb it is, and medium rare it has to be. How bare will the larder be by 9.30, we wonder? It looks well on the way as the couple just seated at the next table discover the wild rabbit is now no more.
I respect a menu that sticks to seven starters and six mains but even on a hectic day – and testament to Crafthouse’s popularity it sure is – this dish decimation is inexcusable.
I can’t imagine the fair value set meal (£23.50 three courses, £19.50 two courses) would suffer a similar fate, but the £65 five-course tasting menu must have been imperilled. Still there was always the fallback of meats and lobster blasted succulently on the Josper.
Back to the house wine. We have gone for D&D’s own Rhone-sourced red and white, Les Trois Bises and Les Gamins. They are apparently 'blended by a crack team of their sommeliers', so I imagine they crop up in all 35 of their restaurants.
I checked Le Pont de la Tour, one of the fine London establishments inherited from Terence Conran, and they offer the Gamins red at £9 a 175cl glass. At Le Pont it was eight quid. Starters there are more expensive, the average main much the same.
At such prices the food has to be top notch and for two courses at Crafthouse it was. I feared I’d regret the fried, battered snails (sorry, crispy escargot at £9.50), but they weren’t too chewy and the presentation was playful. You poured a snail shell of ‘spinach milkshake’ over them and that with a confit garlic mousse felt classic; globules of basil-compressed cucumber and smaller globules of snail caviar less so; still I liked chef Lee Murdoch’s confidence in it all working (it did).
The skill levels honed at establishments such the five-star Turnberry Resort Hotel and more recently Abu Dhabi’s award-winning 55&5th The Grill restaurant are much in evidence from the start.
The rich, seared duck liver (£14) was cut through cleverly with a of sour yoghurt, sorrel water and L8 harvest vinegar, which like Eiswein is made from frozen grapes. I’ve never come across it before; nor ‘perciage’ mentioned alongside the escargot (I was no wiser after Googling).
A glass each of the Trois Bises (Three Kisses) and we appreciated the balance and richness of this Rhone blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier. Even better was the 500cl carafe (£25) of Les Gamins, all ripe black fruit and surprisingly elegant. How it would have paired with the missing muntjac (regrets, yes we had a few)!
Scotsman Murdoch’s mains combine terrific technique and presentation, verging on fussy, with intense flavour juxtapositions. The obvious – lamb with anchovy (£24). Less so, the rabbit with morels and duck liver (£25). My rolls of wild rabbit and a supporting cast of duck liver, a bunny boudin blanc, brioche, potato terrine, wild garlic, spring peas and an abundance of morels came in a great crescent on the plate. Countryside in one dish. Sides of luscious spinach Rockefeller and truffle chips helped fill the barren foreground.
The lamb loin was less ambitious, less medium rare than threatened – a good thing. Encrusted in crushed broad beans and anchovy paste, it sat on a puddle of leeching piquillo pepper. Spring rolls of crispy shoulder stood guard over the ensemble, which also included a grilled little gem lettuce. It was not quite a thing of beauty but my partner loved its powerful flavours.
Beautiful indeed was the ‘Valrhona symphony’ from a miraculously undepleted dessert list. Hard to resist a white chocolate discs engraved with staves and semi-quavers but the rest of the performance, a Japanese-style namelaka made from milk chocolate, glucose cream and gelatin, an underpowered chocolate brownie and mousse, didn’t live up to the Valrhona legend.
For the same £8.50 price my tropical gateau was a major letdown – a kind of deconstructed trifle with too much fluffy coconut sponge, compressed (ie jellied) fruits with a drab yoghurt glacé.
With one of those regrettable 10 per cent discretionary service charges added the bill topped £150. London prices for highly professional food that is someway off the Michelin masterpieces created by a Simon Rogan or a O’Hare. Let’s call it Cuisine Jack Vetriano.
Crafthouse, Level 5, Trinity Leeds, 70 Boar Lane, Leeds LS1 6HW. Tel: 0113 897 0444
Food: 7.5/10 (escargot 8, duck liver 9, lamb 8, rabbit 9, Valrhona 6, tropical gateau 5)