Jenessa Williams says it’s not all perfect – but it’s halfway there

THERE’S something a little strange about skulking around Kirkgate Market after hours. Stranger still, when all the doors are locked and you’re starting to wonder if your 6pm booking at The Owl was an elaborate ruse to do you out of the £15 per person deposit rather than an opportunity to dine within Europe’s largest covered market.

Everything I want and more – easily among the best dishes I’ve eaten in Leeds this year

Still, after shambling around, we finally find our in via New York Street (the entrance nearest the food hall, which retrospectively makes sense), and we are instantly part of something conspiratorial – held at the doors before an all-in-black maître d’ can confirm our booking in hushed tones, whisking us along Fish Row as we dodge stall-owners sweeping down the blood and guts of the day. For a date night, it’s not the most refined of entrances, but it’s unmistakeably honest – the stoic Yorkshire energy that fuels the rest of our evening.

2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Interior
Outside inside - The Owl in the largest covered market in Europe

A small but stylishly clad unit, The Owl’s new space is ideal one-on-one eating – you’d struggle to seat more than four without breaking into an issue of elbows. Perpetually busy since its opening a few weeks ago, some unfortunate soul has to sit by the chill of the door, and tonight it proves to be us. Still, all is quickly forgiven as they bring out our glasses of wine – a Bee Pink rosė (£11.50) and a Gewurztraminer (£5). Both are delicious, but the former is a real winner – definitely one to stock up on for Christmas with its light, peachy flavour. If it feels expensive, it’s because it kinda is, but the glassware is classy and the service isn’t rushed, so it’s a nice accompaniment to the perusal of the hearty, traditionally British menu.

2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Wines
Gewurztraminer white wine and Bee Pink rosė
2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Night Bird Espresso Martini
Salty not sweet Night Bird espresso martini

I can never say no to a game dumpling (£7), and when my starter portion arrives, it is everything I want and more – easily among the best dishes I’ve eaten in Leeds this year. Hair-thin strands of melty venison luxuriate within a compact dome of slightly sticking dumpling, nicely complimented by a sauce that suggests chicken stock, mustard and fruits (or maybe that’s just my wine talking). Like everything else will prove to be on the menu, it’s perfectly proportioned – there’s the option of a scaled-up version as a main, but I suspect that this would be too much of a good thing. For a lighter option, the scallop and parsnip soup (£12) is also an excellent entrée – a thick yet foamed consistency, with a dash of curry that sharpens the perfectly cooked scallop.

2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Game Dumpling
Sticky starter of game dumpling (£7)
2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Soup
Scallop and parsnip soup with crunch (£12)

Mains follow with impressive speed, presented in a manner that would make Gregg Wallace crown his MasterChef there on the spot. My Mr Crab Fish Pie (£18) is made up of the home of the crustacean gentleman himself, with juicy claws on the side for good measure. The shell-filled tray is great for Instagram, but a little frustrating if you’re clumsy like me, and keep losing delicious tendrils of samphire and flaky morsels of fish among the cracks. It quickly transpires that although the salty mash on my partner's wild boar sausage roll with crackling (£12) works excellent well at cutting through the meat and veg, the same potato is also atop my pie, and combined with fish, the whole thing is a briny overload. While it makes complete sense that a restaurant of this size wouldn’t be making up a range of different types of mash for each service, separate seasonings should definitely be given better consideration at this level.

2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Mr Crab Fish Pie
Get your claws on the Mr Crab Fish Pie (£18)
2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Sausage Roll
Wild boar sausage roll with crackling (£12)

All is forgiven in the battle of the puddings, with very little between them in terms of calibre. Sticky toffee pudding (£7) does exactly what it’s supposed to, and the lemon drizzle ice cream sandwich (£6.50) perfectly teams bitter curd with white chocolate sweetness. Everything is rounded off with coffee, or, in my case, a Night Bird espresso martini (£9) – their take on the classic being a dash of salted caramel, which is nowhere near as overbearingly sweet as it sounds.

2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Sticky Toffee Pudding
A perfect example of sticky toffee pudding (£7)
2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Lemon Drizzle
Lemon drizzle ice cream sandwich (£6.50)

And so our evening comes to an end, and we stroll back down a now abandoned Fish Row, bellies full without bursting. Should you give a hoot about The Owl? It’s not perfect by any means, and a little on the pricey side for its portions, but it’s worth noting that savvy diners can make a solid saving should they opt for the early bird set menu, which offers plenty of favourites at a very reasonable price of £25 for three courses before 5.30pm – plus saves you the embarrassment of searching around Kirkgate for an open night-time entrance. With a few small seasoning tweaks (and potentially a table layout rethink), I’d happily return, if only for a game steamed dumpling and a glass of Bee Pink. As the first of many new additions to come in the market, The Owl is certainly a promising start.  

The Owl, Fish and Game Row, Leeds Kirkgate, LS2 7DT  

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2019 11 17 The Owl Leeds Receipt

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 8/10

    Game dumpling 9, scallop and parsnip soup 9, Mr Crab Fish Pie 7, wild boar sausage roll 7, sticky toffee pudding 8, lemon drizzle ice cream sandwich 8

  • Service 4/5

    Staff are kind and prompt without being overbearing

  • Atmosphere 3/5

    A little claustrophobic during busy service, but cosy enough after a glass of wine