Neil Sowerby works his way through Luke Downing’s seven course tasting menu
VICE spawned Virtue. The bar came first, the upstairs restaurant after. If Vice’s Prohibition cocktail offering is a savvy delight, Virtue’s tasting menus are a sprightly revelation. It would be a sin not to appreciate both.
Their location is hardly heavenly – squeezed into an odd wedge of a building overlooking the A64 with a colossal new student-housing tower on its way to blotting out the sun.
You reach V&V via New Briggate, through an angular doorway and up a narrow stair. I’m told it was once a strip club and Vice’s crimson leather banquettes and perfunctory stage have a bit of bump and grind even now. By this time you have been seduced on entry by the finest service in Leeds. Run to a cocktail? We weren’t going to, but the chance of spending quality time with the barmen and their creations won us over.
A signature Negroni feels as Prohibition as the jaunty jazz soundtrack. Maybe £12 is a little steep, but the substitution of Gutierrez Colosia Pedro Ximenez for Vermouth is an inspired twist.
An excellent standalone bar, full of treats, but it’s the restaurant we are here to explore. By the time you read this, chef/patron Luke Downing and his questing young brigade will have simplified their fiendishly complex tasting menu structure as they seek to refocus the food offering.
We had ordered the less extensive seven-course March Virtue Menu, a bargain at £50. We eschewed the £40 ‘classic’ drinks pairing package in favour of a £44 Tamar Ridge Tasmanian Pinot Noir, bright red fruit with a slash of acidity. A ‘rare and exclusive’ drinks package would have been £240 a head, offering the likes of a Barolo, Brunello and a 1998 Dom Perignon.
The 40 cover dining room, a thrifty fit-out lifted by some art deco touches, doesn’t inspire us to such opulence. Perhaps the succession of dishes coming from the open kitchen does. Downing is apparently away at a wedding; we are in the hands of just two scarily young looking chefs and, barely much older, the front of house team that won ‘Best Service’ at last month’s Oliver Awards.
A trio of canapés gives no advance warning of what’s to come; a fritter of beef and beetroot the pick, then there’s a much better amuse bouche of wild boar scotch egg. But a first course of pickled mackerel (main image) has a delicate wow factor; salt cucumber, dill and a scattering of buttermilk ‘snow’ providing a Nordic trace of flavours.
Next, a seared king scallop is scattered with black pudding granules and parsnip crisps and there, sitting on a purse of watercress puree, is a chicken heart. Slightly chewy, but it is an inspired counterpoint to the fleshy bivalve.
All our foreboding about curried quail Kiev dissolved at first bite. Such a savoury combo of the breaded, boned bird sitting on a cake of saag aloo (potato/spinach) with huge aromatics from a mint and rose sauce and a saffron emulsion, crispy leek scattered on top. A chunk of pork cheek braised in cider is in harmony with mustard apple compote, crushed swede and a dinky ham hock bon bon.
Course five and the tasting menu has been beautifully paced and balanced so far. Maybe here they could lose the Yorkshire Blue muffin. There’s enough on the plate to accompany a slice of rare duck breast – beetroot, mulled winter fruits, intensely flavoured heritage carrots.
Then we segue seamlessly into two immaculate puds. The first showcasing forced rhubarb in tandem with vanilla and ginger – panacotta, jelly, ice cream and crumble. Then a thin wedge of milk chocolate mousse and jasmine mousse with cardamon espuma and sharp clementine sorbet that’s like a cocktail on the plate. Quite lovely.
Why does Virtue offer such fully formed rewards? Because all the prelapsarian fine dining fumbling went on during Luke Downing’s decade of kneading his skills up at Dough Bistro in West Park (now rebranded as Aperitivo).
What struck us about the upgrade to the city centre is the obvious teamwork behind the ever evolving drinks and food offering. That superlative waiting staff all have bar backgrounds and have contributed cocktails to the list. How virtuous of them.
Vice & Virtue, 68 New Briggate, Leeds LS1 6NU. 0113 345 0202
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.
Mackerel 8, King Scallop 8, Quail 9, Pork 8, Duck 8, Rhubarb 9, Mousse 9
Bar has bump and grind, dining room is lacking
From bar to restaurant, immaculate, friendly, informative