It’s clear after spending a few minutes at San Carlo that it’s somewhere designed to lure in high-rolling clientelle.
Premier League footballers, if Leeds had any, would doubtless be tempted in with the flashy-looking, hand-carved stone bar and reassuringly expensive food.
As you walk downstairs, past the well-stocked wine shelves, to the toilets, a myriad of celebrities who’ve dined at San Carlo’s sister restaurants around the country gaze back from photo frames, all clearly having enjoyed themselves.
It’s no surprise therefore, that when Oliver arrives for a meal early-ish on a Thursday night, it doesn’t take long for the place to fill up with well-dressed folk who are clearly intent on enjoying an evening of serious food.
The ceilings are high, there are big windows and mirrors to give the whole place a sophisticated, airy feel, and the two-tone polished marble squeaks as the team of well-trained, serious-looking waiters set earnestly about their work.
San Carlo’s menu is huge and diverse. Something to celebrate for those who like variety, but there’s always a lingering worry in the mind of this reviewer about whether a team of chefs can ensure quality with such a wealth of different recipes to keep in mind.
My starter, avocado diverso, is a well-balanced mix of the delicately-flavoured crab meat and avocado served alongside stronger smoked trout and a choice of either Marie Rose or horseradish sauce.
The avocado is sliced up delicately and the whole arrangement is very pleasing to the eye, as you would expect for £7.50.
At the other end of the table, my partner is tucking into her crab and prawn cakes with (not literal) relish.
Home-made and fresh-tasting, the two small crab cakes come with what appears to be a deep-fried crab claw, a few bitter rocket leaves and a spicy sweet chill sauce.
Price-wise, the mains are also a step up from the fare you’d find at many high street Italian chains.
A shellfish royale, made up of roasted giant prawns, langoustine, prawn crevettes, scallop and mussels with garlic butter, looks like a fine option, but my choice, selected from the specials menu, is abbacchio ligure, a baked rack of lamb with red wine and mixed herbs.
It’s £18.95 without accompaniment, but packs plenty of flavour in for the money.
Served pink at my request, the flesh is cooked perfectly to my taste, meltingly tender and flavoursome inside and with a bit of bite on the outside, coated with herbs and alongside a pleasingly intense red wine sauce.
A plate of sauteed, herb-strewn potatoes served with bacon makes a fine accompaniment.
Freshly-made ravioli langoustine, at £14.95, is light and tasty, with plenty of filling and a sauce made with cream, tomato, tarragon and lemon. Like the dishes that came before, it’s very rich, and as the dessert menu makes an appearance our stomachs are starting to strain.
But it’s hard to resist the prospect of the torta antica, a signature San Carlo dish which resembles a combination of brownie and hot chocolate fondant.
Though very indulgent, and a generous enough portion to eat between two people. It’s surprisingly light, with a crispy surface atop a layer of gooey chocolate, and served warm with vanilla ice cream.
Sitting across from a non-drinking partner, I opt for wine by the glass to drink. The first, a house white, is a pleasant enough chardonnay, but fancying something more memorable to accompany my main course I ask a passing waiter what he recommends.
Quick as a flash, he reels off a couple of options and brings over a little of each to sample. My choice, an intense, smokey offering from the Montresor winery, is nearly twice as expensive as the house white at £8.50 a glass, but much tastier.
And just to gild the lily, I finish off proceedings with a glass of Vin Santo Italian dessert wine (£5.10) as I eat dessert.
Though ostensibly a chain after opening its first site in Birmingham in 1992, with bases at six cities across the UK (and having taken over Flying Pizza on Street Lane in 2010), San Carlo appears to take pride in letting each of its restaurants develop its individuality.
One element of uniformity is that Aldo Zilli, a friend of founder Carlo Distefano, is chef consiliere to the group, helping to maintain standards and consulting on menus.
The decor is a notch or two up from the Italian chains that are two a penny on the high street, and makes a refreshing change from the exposed brick and metal pipes on the ceiling that characterise a good proportion of new openings in the city.
Combined with the excellent food and the attentive service, which gives the evening an air of formality without being suffocatingly so, we walk out feeling like we’ve had a proper meal out.
In fact, reflecting on the large quantities of rather rich food we have consumed in the space of two hours, perhaps it was too much of a proper night out.
Our bill, with a ten per cent service charge that we don’t consider disputing, comes to a few pence under the £84 mark.
There’s no doubt it’s on the pricey side, but that becomes easier to justify when you consider the quality of the ingredients used (and they are clearly of very high quality) and the general care and attention put into the place.
It’s the kind of place that might not throw in any huge surprises, but delivers in all aspects from the start of the evening to the end. Highly recommended.
San Carlo Leeds
6-7 South Parade
Tel: +44 (0)113 246 1500
Open Monday to Sunday 12pm to 11pm