Simon Richardson goes in search of ants and mushrooms at the home of Leeds’ newest Masterchef
I love a tasting menu. They’re indulgent, varied, often surprising insights into what makes a chef tick. Over the last few years, I’ve followed Jono Hawthorne’s career quite closely as one of Leeds’ most talented young chefs. But following the most recent series of Masterchef: The Professionals, he has stepped up and taken on Vice and Virtue and with it, the unenviable task of trying to mould a restaurant into his own image, at short notice, during a pandemic. It takes guts to take the leap at a time when hospitality is on its knees, but you’ve got to ride the mushroom tiramisu wave, right?
The most fitting end to the meal would be an egg, served curate’s
The restaurant itself hasn’t really changed – the far end needs a bit of work to conceal the back office and provide something a bit more pleasant for diners to look at and the light could use a little dimming, but it’s intimate without being sparse, kempt without being pretentious. We settle in with a cocktail and perform the ritualistic pre-meal stretches. Stomach in, stomach out.
A few snacks to accompany our aperitifs include light and fluffy truffle popcorn, olives, burst-in-the-mouth roe and cream cheese on a slightly soggy waffle segment, and a wedge of sourdough. The latter comes with yeast butter, which tastes exactly like marmite. Even at this early stage, I ponder the possibility that this will prove to be a metaphor for the whole evening.
I haven’t got much time to let my thoughts wander, though, as it’s time to start reeling the courses off the conveyer belt. Tasting menus are a bit like Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game– a reference I imagine Chef Jono might appreciate, given that there is a clear focus on a food era gone by. A timely candidate to prove this is chicken liver with accompanying shards of chocolate and a glass of crémant to ramp up the creaminess of the pate. It’s all textbook 1970s garden party, but the pork crackling lacks a bit of crunch.
Something that could use a little less crispiness, though, is my burgeoning headache, brought about by Adele being given a quite insistent airing at Spinal Tap volumes. It’s almost comically loud; I guess that’s great if you’re a fan of being slapped around the face with the wet fish of pop music? The ensuing off-menu brie-covered madeleine feels like a peace offering, and most welcome it is too.
But back to the tasting menu itself. Savoury porridge. I consider porridge to be the food version of when an old person says to you, “In my day…” before giving you a look that means fun is forbidden. Parmesan, truffle, coffee. I don’t get much of any of this as it’s overridden by the joyless texture of, well, porridge. My other half doesn’t eat hers either.
Raw beef is a significant uptick, cleverly paired with a martini with a dollop of rapeseed oil. The parkin crumb adds a pleasing sweetness – I just wish there was more of it. Perhaps it could replace the reindeer moss, which has the texture of a loofah. That’s fair dedication to the 1970s – we’re even branching out into bathroom accessories.
Cod loin next, sumptuous flakes of white fish melting into a severely rich soup complete with caviar. Dah-ling! This one comes with an English white, which is the pairing of the evening, cutting through the heavy cream with ease. The concept of good English wine is still young enough for me to feel absurdly patriotic – I wouldn’t be surprised if the next dish came out accompanied by the National Anthem. Loudly, of course.
The “main” is a nod back to Jono’s time at feed, where dishes often came served under a blanket of something or other, hiding a delicate steamed surprise beneath. Today’s reveal is char sui pork, and by God, if that isn’t the kind of form I’ve been expecting. As a dish, it’s honestly faultless, combining fresh cucumber crunch and soft, umami undertones surrounding a superb piece of pork. This is a winner, far outstripping the disappointingly acidic pinot noir accompaniment.
Tasting menus typically build up to a fanfare centrepiece and the trumpet players have long since packed up and taken their tips with them before the sweet denouement to the meal. This is a meal with a different focus, however. Jono’s Masterchef: The Professionals appearances have ensured that what the diners are waiting for come right at the end. Here come the ants! Gimmicky? Perhaps. But the sharp acidity of the insects bursts out with each bite, really adding flavour to the smooth ice cream and joining in harmony with rhubarb and the apple in the accompanying gin pressé. Bottom line, it works and it’s a talking point. What’s not to like?
Of course, mushroom tiramisu is where we’ve been heading, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been looking forward to it for weeks. I’m not disappointed – the combination of sweet and savoury, the multiple textures, and the classic boozy, coffee laden interior are all there, and they’re all absolutely delicious. My wife hates it. I eat hers too and chuckle into my port like a lord. You’ve got to pretend to be posh when you’re at a tasting menu, right?
The most fitting end to the meal would be an egg, served curate’s. Instead, though, it comes fried.
From a Haribo packet.
Now, I get that Matchmakers and Haribo are supposed to be a humorous way to draw the curtains behind a meal that journeys through the past, but here’s the thing. This ain’t my Mum’s house, and this ain’t cheap. For me, this found the wrong side of comedy, instead serving as a reminder that I’m parting with three hundred quid at a time when everyone is struggling in the wake of a pandemic. For such a sweet, boozy last hour, it’s a fairly savoury, sobering end. We collect our things together and head across the road for a nightcap, slightly disarmed. As a consequence, I’m still struggling for a way to sum up my experience at Chef Jono at Vice and Virtue.
Talent? Certainly. A work in progress? Inevitably. Value for money? I’ll leave that one up to you.
Chef Jono @ Vice & Virtue 68 New Briggate, Leeds LS1 6NU
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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.
Snacks 6, Chicken Liver 7, Porridge 2, Madeleine 7, Raw Beef 8, Cod Loin 7, Pork 10, Ants 7, Mushroom Tiramisu 9, Petits Fours 2
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