IT was the Soul Kitchen’s name which intrigued me.
The image conjured was of big, gutsy Caribbean, Creole and Deep South flavours, beautifully marinaded meats and fish, and a tastebud explosion. And to some extent, this small restaurant delivers.
Soul Kitchen is attached to a renowned jazz and funk nightspot, The Wardrobe, so maybe I was being naive in expecting anything near gourmet dining in a busy nightclub and bar. But the early signs were good.
We had been lucky to get a table on a Saturday night, as there was a voucher offer on and the place was packed. The fact that we were not voucher dining might well have helped our case for a late entry.
The bar area was already buzzing when we got there. The dining area is simply an extension of the bar, and can seat about 50.
The decor is therefore simple and the seating comfortable and functional, not plush. We were given a booth and liked the dim lighting and suitably soulful background music.
Although the menu was not massive, there were certainly some intriguing dishes whose names jumped out at us, among them the Hoppin’ Johns and Redneck Allotment salads, and mains like the ‘Over the Road’ patty and Bans Braata stuffed peppers.
There is also a grill, offering a selection of steaks and a choice of tempting rubs and glazes like Cajun spice, smoked hickory barbecue sauce and scotch bonnet hot sauce.
We were offered some complementary gumbo (spicy vegetable stew) and sweet bread, with honey butter. This was an odd but not unpleasant combination, with the sweetness and spice working well together. However the gumbo had no salt in it at all.
Our waitress displayed supreme patience as we ummed and aahed over the menu.
For starters, my companion and I chose to share a trio of dishes. First was the Jamaican Crab Cakes (£4.30), seared crab patties with a hint of lime and chilli, served with a lime and coriander mayonnaise and pepper salsa.
The patties were very small, though well cooked, but I couldn’t really taste the lime or chilli. The accompanying salsa was chunky, tangy and delicious, and it saved the dish for me.
My companion selected the Shrimp and Grits (£6.90), prawns, smoky bacon, red pepper and spring onions sitting on a bed of twice cooked polenta. We also tried the Martinique Mushrooms (£3.90), sautéed spicy portobello mushrooms served on toasted corn bread.
The prawns were juicy and beautifully cooked, but the generously-portioned polenta was just too heavy as an accompaniment. It also needed something with a little more sauce in it to soak up the flavours and do what polenta does best.
The mushrooms were firm and meaty in texture, and cooked well with just the right amount of kick, However, again, the spongy-textured cornbread, though perfectly acceptable, seemed too much, especially with the generous serving of mushrooms.
Again, disappointingly, both dishes were severely under-seasoned.
On to the mains, and I was immediately drawn to the Creole Jambalaya (£13.90) a rice dish packed with chicken, spiced Caribbean sausage, king prawns, peppers and peas. This was an absolutely huge portion, and came with two enormous prawns, still in their shells, sitting proudly atop the mound of rice and challenging me. I ordered a side of spicy plantain chips, not realising the main would be huge.
The jambalaya was fantastic, bursting with beautifully marinaded, perfectly cooked, generous pieces of spicy chicken. The prawns too were a joy to eat. A squeeze of lime finished the dish off beautifully.
The real revelation, though, was the plantain, which was just stunning. I felt like I was eating a hybrid vegetable, part potato and part banana, but without the aftertaste. I could have eaten a plateful quite easily, and after many failed attempts at cooking the vegetable myself, I am inspired to try again.
My companion was disappointed with her salmon steak, which at £16.90 – and served with a very limp-looking side of ‘collard’ greens – seemed overpriced. Though fresh and cooked well, it again lacked any depth of flavour. My friend had opted for a Cajun spice rub, but she said the flavour just wasn’t infused into the dish as a whole. The portion of fish was also tiny. The greens were tasty though a little oily. Overall, she felt this dish was not good value for money.
The service between starters and mains was incredibly slow, and we didn’t get our mains until about an hour and a half after we had arrived. Our waitress was apologetic, but her excuse was that ‘the bar got very busy’. Not a good excuse, we thought. If you are going to run a restaurant, then don’t run it as an afterthought, especially with the kind of prices being charged for the food. It may be that this night was an exception. After all a voucher deal will always draw the crowds. But what will bring them back is great food and great service.
There were certainly some fantastic elements to the food at Soul Kitchen, however the lack of seasoning on some of the dishes was a major problem - and a real surprise. The disjointed portioning – with the tiny crab cakes, polenta-barricaded prawns, jumbo jambalaya and tiny overpriced salmon steak – was also a worry.
The menu also includes ‘Yummy Yank Desserts’ so we opted to share a peanut butter cheesecake, which was served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. The dish was very tasty, the cheesecake’s dense look hiding a surprisingly light texture, and thankfully it was not overly sweet.
While we had been eating, the evening’s guest band, Brothers on the Slide, had set up and as soon as the kitchen closed, they started their performance. With their fantastic selection of soul and funk classics, they helped us burn off some of those hefty calories on the dancefloor – and more than made up for any shortfall of soul in our dining experience.
Our bill, with a cocktail and coffees each, came to £80, so certainly not a cheap meal.
Despite a few flaws, I would certainly go back to Soul Kitchen as there was some real promise in the food, and the concept itself fills a big gap in the market in Leeds. However a few tweaks are needed to make this eaterie a genuine contender in the city’s quality cuisine scene.
Address: St Peter’s Square, LS9 8AH
Opening times: Tues 12-2.30pm/5.30-9pm, Wed 12-2.30pm/5.30-9pm, Thurs 12-2.30pm/5.30-9pm, Fri 12-2.30pm/5.30-10pm, Sat 5.30-10pm, Sun/Mon - closed
Tel: 0113 3838800