Pub review: The Midnight Bell, Water Lane, Holbeck, Leeds

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FOR HALF a day last week I was a trendsetter.

Not just in the workaday way where you start a fad for pink ties or a mid-morning Hobnob, but a real, official, opinion-forming, leader of 21st century style. It even said so on the internet, so it must be true.

If you’re in the habit of laying blame, you can blame Twitter, not that Twitter will care much. It was a quiet morning so I started this little discussion on which was better, the Midnight Bell or its close neighbour the Cross Keys, asking my pitifully few followers to give their answers and reasons. Simple enough.

But I’m a newcomer to this whole social media malarkey, and was amazed to see it snowball from there, with tweets and re-tweets coming in left, right and centre, many from people who wouldn’t know Holbeck from Honolulu. The buzz was such that I was listed as “top trending topic” for a while, an achievement I would surely celebrate, if only I knew what it meant.

The results were mixed, but among those people who at least seemed to know what they were talking about, the consensus was that the beer was better at the Midnight Bell, the atmosphere better at the Cross Keys.

Which largely accords with my own views, having visited both a couple of times since Christmas.

My latest outing brought me to the Midnight Bell, which opened in a blaze of publicity a little over two years ago, and is the flagship outlet of the Leeds Brewery pub chain. Even if it were not obvious from their curvy tear-shaped rhombus – the company’s distinctive trademark shape – picked out on one wall and in the mouldings on the front of the bar, the similarly-shaped pump clips for Leeds Pale, Leeds Best and Midnight Bell would give the game away.

They’re also selling the super-strength dark Gyle 479 ale. It’s a whopping £3 for a half pint, but worth the investment as an interesting alternative to the brewery’s three mainstream ales, of which the zesty refreshing Pale remains a firm favourite. There’s an interesting selection of lagers too.

My wife and I retired to the comfortable leather banquettes on the small room to the left of the door, which is more intimate and more subtly lit than the brighter, slightly livelier areas around the bar. A staircase from beside the front door leads up to a dining room which is dominated by a brick fireplace topped by a huge stone lintel.

On the landing, the plaster has been stripped away to reveal the lovely old red brickwork beneath and the ceiling pulled away to expose gnarled oak beams. Parts of the pub – the upstairs in particular – lend themselves well to receptions, private parties and corporate events; the courtyard drinking space to the rear really comes into its own in the summer.

But this was a winter night, and we had come in search of substantial warming sustenance. We both went for fish dishes, with contrasting prices and contrasting levels of satisfaction. The fish and chips (£9.25) was a chunky portion of well-battered cod, with lots of big potatoe wedges, tartare sauce, mushy peas and some salad for good measure. This was solid pub grub, well presented, and a hearty dinner which almost outfaced my hungry partner.

By comparison, the pan-roasted cod loin (£13.25) was a serious disappointment. It was a more of a genuine gastro choice, and sounded interesting enough – served with wilted baby spinach, sautéed potatoes and a brown shrimp butter – but was way too skimpy a portion and lacking the kind of subtlety or imagination you might expect for the extra four quid.

Other main courses include the braised lamb shank (£12.25), beef, bacon and cheese burger (£9.25), Swaledale sausages and mash (£9.95) and a game and Midnight Bell pie (£9.95). Sandwiches start at £5.50, pies at £8.95, starters at £2.50 for a mug of soup.

Licensee Rich Fiddaman wandered over for chat. After a spell living in Dorset and then at All Bar One in Greek Street, he has been at the Midnight Bell for 18 months, the last ten as manager. “When I came back north I was determined to work for Leeds Brewery, they’re a great company. After drinking southern beer for a while, it was Leeds Pale which got me right back into real ale.”

He promised to have a word with the chef.

Twitter: @jenkolovesbeer


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