THERE are some questions you never imagine you’ll have to ask.
“What’s parmesan air?” would have been on Oliver’s list – before our trip to Anthony’s.
A kind of light cheesy foam is the answer, it turns out – though, admittedly, “light cheesy foam” wouldn’t look quite as tantalising on the menu.
Expanding your gastronomic lexicon is one inevitable by-product of a visit to the famous Boar Lane restaurant.
For anyone who hasn’t spent the last eight years in solitary confinement, Anthony’s requires little introduction.
Opened by precocious, then-24-year-old, Anthony Flinn in March 2004, it attracted immediate and almost universal critical acclaim and quickly established itself as the jewel in the city’s culinary crown.
Unsurprising, given the chef’s tutelage at El Bulli’s in Spain – widely considered one of the best restaurants in Europe.
Approaching its eighth birthday, the aura persists – the mere mention of Anthony’s in conversation is enough to arouse a level of pupil-dilating interest few restaurants with an LS postcode can match.
Neither of us said so, but it was therefore with a “go on then, impress us” kind of an attitude that myself and my dining partner arrived on a cold Friday night.
The restaurant specialises in molecular gastronomy, the experimental, scientific cuisine popularised in the mid-noughties.
Whether the term makes your eyes twinkle with anticipation or roll with exasperation, as soon as you sit down in Anthony’s street-level bar for a pre-dinner drink, it’s apparent that an unconventional, uncompromising, and, for better or worse, unforgettable dining experience lies in store.
“Some snacks,” our friendly maitre d’ said, placing two small plates in front of us.
If someone told me they’d munched on a packet of Bombay mix and some pork scratchings while enjoying a drink on Boar Lane, I’d assume they were talking about a visit to Yates’s.
But that’s exactly what we were given as an accompaniment to our bottle of Beaujolais.
These weren’t your bog-standard bar room bites, however. The Bombay mix was home-made, the pork scratchings the crispiest, porkiest, least greasy little porcine shavings you’ll come across.
Our maitre d’ was back a short time later with the menus. “Let me know if you’ve got any questions,” he offered.
It wasn’t long before we were beckoning him over again.
Along with the introduction to parmesan air, we learned that the “espuma” served with one of the desserts was also a kind of foam.
Apparently Anthony likes his foam.
The whole menu looked exciting and our only concern was that there was no-one else in the bar at this point.
When the restaurant opened it was well known that you were unlikely to get a table unless you booked weeks in advance.
I was slightly surprised that I managed to secure a reservation when I called just a day before our visit. I was even more surprised to see just one other couple eating as we made our way to the basement level to be seated.
By the time we left there had been only three more groups of diners, none larger than four people. The sparsity of customers made for a slightly eerie lack of atmosphere, which was a shame given that the food itself was, for the most part, mightily impressive.
A tasty amuse-bouche of pine nut veloute with confit duck and apple, compliments of the chef, was a promising precursor to our starters.
The small loaf of home-made bread that followed was elevated beyond the norm by three different types of butter – a salted butter, a beurre noisette and a ham butter. Each had its own distinctive flavour.
You couldn’t help but smile at these simple, well thought-out little touches.
To start I had the BBQ tuna, sumptuous slices of seared fish served with small cubes of smoked duck and a sweet carrot puree. The dish was breath-takingly beautiful to look at. I don’t think I exhaled until I’d finished every morsel.
My dining partner had the restaurant’s signature dish of risotto of white onion, with espresso and, yes, parmesan air. It was bitter, sweet and creamy with an extra, strong but not overpowering, layer of flavour courtesy of the foam. And it disappeared in a flash.
Next I had the pork fillet with Earl Grey, sage butter ravioli, compressed apple, carrot, granola and apple and vanilla puree.
I like a bacon butty with a cuppa as the next man. But tea and pig on the same plate? No thanks. Somehow, though, under Anthony’s alchemy, the combination worked. It was delicious.
My dining partner had the saddle of rabbit with deep fried whitebait, confit rabbit leg, confit potatoes, foccacia crutons and sugar snap peas. If anything the least flamboyant dish we sampled, but still beautifully cooked.
To say that Anthony’s values style over substance would sound like an unintended criticism. It is certainly true to say, however, that, while all the dishes are a feast for the eyes, none is large enough to leave you feeling as though you need to loosen the belt.
Thank heaven we had room, after our modest mains, for dessert.
The puddings were preceded by a divine pre-dessert of poached rhubarb, goats milk and rosemary Anglaise with honeycomb.
It was so good we were both tempted to cancel our pudding orders and ask the waiter just to bring us two larger bowls of the stuff.
We were glad we didn’t – the desserts themselves were even better. My pumpkin cake with warm cinnamon espuma, treacle ice cream, pumpkin seeds and white chocolate was a bowl full of beautifully blended textures and flavours. With every mouthful each element seemed to compete for the affections of my taste buds. A sweet-lover’s utopia.
My dining partner’s smoked chocolate brownie was a Titanic clash of bitter and sweet flavours, coming as it did with a pecan and mascarpone parfait that had a hint of popcorn about it, chocolate caramel and pieces of chocolate fudge.
A fitting end to a memorable meal.
The bill left an impression too – at £45-a-head for three courses (our bill came to £113 including wine) this isn’t dining for people feeling the new year pinch. Neither is it designed for those who are happy with average fare.
Whether the unorthodox approach to cooking matches the restaurant’s promise to provide food “without pretence or pomposity” is a matter of opinion.
There’s little doubt that there’s a peacock-like arrogance about Flinn’s use of his craft.
But then, as American social writer Eric Hoffer said, geniuses are always the arrogant members of our society.
Anthony’s Restaurant, 19 Boar Lane, Leeds, LS1 6EA
Opening hours: Lunch, noon to 2pm Tuesday to Saturday. Dinner 7pm to 9pm Tuesday to Thursday, 7pm to 10pm Friday and Saturday
Tel. 0113 2455922
SERVICE .................... *****
***** EXCELLENT **** VERY GOOD *** GOOD ** AVERAGE * POOR