I’m proud of Leeds. Over the past few years it has really embraced the alternative foodie scene. It’s the birthplace of Clandestine Cake Club and Homage to Fromage. Is home to countless supperclubs, including ourselves. And is now seeing the launch of exciting pop up restaurants. Loiners are really up for trying new culinary adventures and we love that we’re a part of it.
The latest addition to this vibrant and growing scene is ‘We the Animals’ (WTA) – a Leeds collective of food and drink experts who have been running meal ‘experiences’ for the past couple of months. Their inaugural event was in the Trinity church (you know the one, famous for the shopping centre). We couldn’t go to that due to other plans but had not really heard much about it in the run up or after and so the mystery of WTA deepened. When it was announced that the follow up events would be held in the prison cells of Leeds Town Hall we jumped on the tickets!
I have to admit that I had very low expectations for eating in a cell. My previous visit to there and they had been dank, dark and smelly. Not somewhere I wanted to sit for a few hours eating and chatting. Having said that, on arrival the Town Hall was all lit up with candles and fairy lights. We were shown to a secret doorway that led straight to the cells. The cells had been freshened up with a lick of paint, more lighting and a fan to keep us cool. The large dining table was set with hessian and menus and looked inviting. About 3 cells were set up for diners, each with about 9-10 places set out. A room next door was the ‘bar’ with a great range of local beers (gravy quaffer from Shipley), gin (Portobello Road of Jake’s Bar fame) and lots of fun wines. We had a chilled Beaujolais, which was very refreshing for the balmy evening. We were welcomed with a jam jar of pimms, spiked with elderflower that was lovely and cooling.
As we took to our seats and met our fellow guests my initial thought was that some background music would have been nice. The cells were potentially quite isolating places and so if we hadn’t all been chatting then it would have felt stiflingly quiet. Fear not though, everyone was game and most were previous Manor guests anyway! Glancing at the menu we noticed that we were being served 15 courses, which was exciting! I wondered how on earth they got all the food out, given that they had already done a previous sitting three hours prior to us.
First up was one of my favourites of the night – whole radishes with salted butter and homemade focaccia and sourdough bread. It’s always the simple things that work! The radishes were lovely and crunchy, the focaccia professionally made with enough salt and richness from the oil and herbs.
The jam jars made a reappearance filled with gazpacho. Despite the obvious appearance of cucumber I downed this! Very much needed on a hot summer’s night, in prison! The food continued to come now and was largely served family style for us to take what we wanted. Whilst the menu spoke of 15 courses it was actually small plates of everything, some being the main event and some being side dishes to accompany. Our enthusiastic waitress explained that all the dishes consisted of just three ingredients. This made me think of River Cottage, and actually a lot of the dishes seemed like River Cottage recipes, so perhaps Hugh FW was an inspiration for this event? I couldn’t really see any link between the food and the prison theme, which was a shame. A lot had been done to build up the atmosphere for the venue, in terms of the marketing beforehand and then decorating on the day – it would have been great to see this carried through to the food.
Anyway, our ‘starters’ were charred spring onions with a lovely romesco sauce; beautiful heritage tomatoes with own smoked anchovies; and courgettes with a lemon dressing. Also on offer were the controversial crispy pigs ears, which we actually served at our second ever event! Hats off to everyone round the table as despite misgivings they all tried them (with enough for us to have seconds!). These were as a I remembered, slightly oily calamari. WTA served theirs with kohlrabi and capers which was very clean after the oily pig ear.
Mains were similarly rustic, well balanced and full of flavour. One of my favourites of the night was a skewer of lambs liver that came just cooked and crusted with cumin. This was not too livery and was smooth and melt in the mouth. This was served with a tabbouleh salad full of aromatics from fresh herbs; runner beans with shallots and thyme; and curried ratte potatoes with crispy chickpeas – this was another favourite, really salty and spicy, I could imagine eating this as part of an amazing hangover breakfast! Finally a pallet cleanser of lettuce with vinegar and crispy garlic came round, it certainly cleansed the palate but people agreed it was a bit odd.
It was at this point that we were invited to go back outside, get some fresh air and prepare ourselves for dessert. It was at this point that, as I was reflecting on the menu, I realised how clever WTA had been in picking very cheap ingredients and then adding lots of flavour and style to make them more appealing. The majority of the menu had been vegetables and the only meat we’d eaten had been liver and pigs ears! It was quite satisfying really as I was nice and full and yet I knew I’d been eating lots of wholesome things, so the meal didn’t feel too naughty.
Desserts were less intriguing than the mains. First off a large dish filled with ice and cherries was brought round, This seemed odd but worked as the cherries were so fresh and seasonal. The longer they stayed in the ice the more they started to turn into individual pops of sorbet! Next up was a platter of fresh berries and mini madelines. This was calling out for some cream, lemon curd or chocolate sauce – it didn’t feel naughty enough at all. Finally the infamous jars were back, this time filled with a strawberry gazpacho. This was my least favourite course of the day. It lacked sweetness or tang and would have been much nicer in a cocktail or frozen as sorbet. Whilst these came round the friendly chap from Laynes coffee popped into our cell to tell us about his coffee. He passed round little glasses of authentic Ethiopian coffee which we were not allowed milk or sugar with. It was light and fruity and almost like a tea, most unlike the coffee we’re used to, we all approved!
The highlight of the evening was the ascent from the cells up to the Leeds clock tower. How on earth they risk assessed this I have no idea, given that we’d all had a few bottles of wine. Despite the 225 steps the view from the top was worth it. Leeds was full of lights and gearing up for a Saturday night. A lovely breeze cooled us down ready for us to go back down to our hot cell.
So the overall WTA experience was great. The venue was exciting and atmospheric. The food was plentiful and whilst basic at some points, challenged people’s boundaries at others. The value for money is exceptional given that we had all that food, a welcome drink and a fun location. The staff were passionate and enthusiastic making the whole event seem very special. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future dinners as the fact that it moves around venues will keep it very fresh and interesting. Plus we got a little take home treat of oaty, raisin cookies, which is always a winner!