Depending on your outlook, the culinary approach of Brasserie Forty 4 is summed up by one of two maxims: (1) if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; (2) you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
A staple of the Leeds dining scene for what, in restaurant terms, feels like millennia, it has remained steadfast – or stubborn – in its principles as many around it have come and gone.
Its staying power is admirable, particularly given its fairly isolated spot on the fringes of the city centre.
That said, the waterfront location is surely one of the most enviable in town and must account, at least in part, for its enduring appeal to a loyal customer base.
We had a riverside seat to enjoy our meal and it’s inarguable that there’s something beguiling about the twinkle of the lights off the oil-black River Aire at night, even if the serenity is occasionally punctuated by the caterwauls of drinkers on their way to or from nearby Call Lane and Brewery Wharf.
With prices at a premium too, however, there has to be more to its survival than geography.
The service is, it must be said, almost faultless. The barman who greeted us upon arrival was impossibly friendly, apologising heartily that he didn’t have the wherewithal to conjure us up the cocktails we initially requested, but offering us a gamut of suitable alternatives before we both decided on a gin and tonic while we sat in the reception area before being taken to our table.
The youthful waiting staff are well-drilled and attentive.
The menu feels like a reliable old friend.
Starters range from soup at £5.50 to the wallet-busting £10.50 lobster and crayfish risotto.
From the specials I chose the salt and pepper prawns (£7.50). Served on a white plate with some leaves which, I would venture, had come straight from a sealed plastic bag, they looked little more impressive than a pub snack.
Fortunately they made more of an impression on the palate. The six ample prawns were coated in a perfectly light batter, liberally seasoned and accompanied by a vibrant red chilli jam.
At first sight the amount of relish looked like an unnecessarily large portion. I have to confess, however, that I’d happily have taken a spoon to it and eaten the whole lot on its own, had I not mopped it all up with the prawns. It was delicious, giving the bite-size seafood snacks a pleasing, spicy punch.
My dining partner had the duck and pistachio terrine (£6.95). Her love of duck is such that a chef has to mistreat the bird badly in order for her not to enjoy it and the wedge of terrine was big and brash enough to carry impact. It came with a Grand Marnier sauce, the boozy sweetness of which cut through the saltiness of the prolific pistachios. Once the dressing had gone, however, the pressed meat lacked moisture and she left a good portion of it. More sauce, and it would have disappeared.
My main was the lamb rump (£17.75).
Served with pearl barley, root vegetables and mint jelly it was unsurprising – the unkind might say uninspiring – but was competently put together and the meat was perfectly pink. The jelly was fresh and zingy and the liberally applied port sauce was deep and rich and smooth.
My dining partner had the pork tenderloin (£15.95) – presented as three sausage-shaped towers emerging from a wonderfully warming, creamy brandy sauce. The sauce provided a nice counterbalance to the saltiness of the Parma ham in which the meat was wrapped, while the savoy cabbage was an enjoyably tender, sweet accompaniment.
Neither dish was insubstantial, but our waiter recommended that we have a couple of side dishes.
This was annoying for two reasons. Firstly, as it turned out, we didn’t really need them.
Secondly, a real bugbear of mine is being told that a meal that I’m already paying for is inadequate without additions – and then charging me extra for them.
If, in the chef’s opinion, a dish is incomplete without a side of vegetables or potatoes, they should serve it with whatever is most appropriate.
As it was, we felt persuaded by our waiter to order the extras – dauphinoise potatoes and carrots with honey and fennel seeds, both priced at £2.75.
The potatoes, served in a small pot, were good. Beyond slicing them into disks and sprinkling them with copious amounts of fennel, however, there was little attempt to elevate the carrots beyond ordinary.
They were unimpressive and I resented the fact that we’d taken the waiter’s advice.
That aside both dishes were competently executed without showing any great flair; classics treated with a kind of deferential respect which implied a reluctance to deviate from the most rigid of guidelines.
The same could be said of the creme brulee we shared for dessert – a largely textbook example with a satisfyingly crisp caramel topping, although the custard was runnier than I prefer. It was served with a pleasant, heart-shaped shortbread biscuit.
While our evening was perfectly pleasant, with a bill of £105 (including a bottle of wine), we felt entitled to expect a little more.
It’s an exciting time for dining in the city, with foodies offered everything from vegetarian Asian street food to Michelin-starred fine dining.
While Brasserie Forty 4 has proved its staying power, it may have to liven things up before it stagnates.