Let me take you on a journey. Into the night. Into the heart of Leeds.
Where history mixes effortlessly with modernity, where the soft velvet neon from bars such as Las Iguanas and the sharp crimson radiance of restaurants such as Red’s True Barbecue illuminate dull brown and grey cobbles which were laid down more than 300 years ago.
At the centre of this hub of nightlife stands the Corn Exchange, completed in 1864 and as resolute and reassuring today as it was back then.
Many cities end up having old and new pulling in opposite directions but somehow Leeds manages to make the two work hand in hand to create something enchanting. Like oarsmen pulling to the same rhythm. This area is the beating heart of the city and the fact we find it vigorous and keen at 8pm on a Tuesday, of all days, stands testament to what has been achieved here.
Because in spite of the inevitable signs of modernisation, it’s the sense of history which dominates, taking you cheerily by the hand to lead you places you thought you’d never go. And so it was for us on this particular night.
As we travelled into the city on what was one of the hottest days of the year, the air still warm and dry, I had a vague notion of where we might end up and it’s a restaurant I’ve long wanted to visit but even as we left our taxi, a dozen other places clamoured for our custom.
By way of aperitif, then, and also to give us pause for thought, we found ourselves comfortably seated on one of the wooden benches outside Las Iguanas, supping Pinot Grigio and Brahma beer (£9 for the round). The wine was lightly and spicy and more importantly ice cold, which made all the difference in the lingering heat. My beer on the other hand wasn’t half as good, the draught far from properly chilled, even though it was on tap, the bubbles dissolving before it was half gone, making it flat and frankly disappointing.
Still, the atmosphere was so pleasant and calming that we loitered a while longer and in the end I went back to order two more Pinots.
By this point, it was going on for 9.30pm and so we wondered whether we had, in fact, left it too late to eat. Leaving Las Iguanas and venturing round the back of the Corn Exchange, past the back of the First White Cloth Hall and Cattle Grid, which has apparently now moved to the St John’s Centre, then up toward the market side, we came upon Caravanserai, the slender tapering building which reminds one of the prow of a ship moored in a harbour. It’s a place I’ve admired for a while and, indeed, our Little Oliver review last year gave this diminutive North African street food take-away-cum-restaurant a huge thumbs up.
The word ‘caravanserai’ means ‘an inn in the desert’, an oasis, if you will, and it certainly looks the part. With its burgundy red exterior walls, emerald green shutters and ochre signage, it certainly stands out from the more sombre washed-out stone structures which surround it. But it’s also such a slender building that one can just about walk around the front of it in just a few paces.
As we approached the main serving window, the man inside informed us they were closing the kitchen at 10pm but added they were still open all the same. We asked if we might enter and after taking us through the menu options still available at that late hour, we were led upstairs into what has to be one of the most wondrous dining areas in the whole of Leeds.
We were led into a first floor room, a slip of a thing draped in Persian rugs and festooned with sconces and curious metal lamps, a set of bellows and a neat little collection of silver jugs nestled in an old alcove in one of the bare brick walls, surrounded by an empty picture frame. A long wooden table attended by mismatched chairs near filled the room and in one corner sat an ornately carved chair with a mirror set in its back and opposite it, hid between a tall wooden cabinet and the wall, a tall shisha pipe in silver. It felt as though we had been transported into the tent of some Ottoman prince.
The chef was an easy-going, friendly chap who took his time to explain the cuisine and so, with one eye on the clock, we ordered some Harissa Houmous (£2.50), a spicier alternative to the now common dish and which was served with warm flatbread. It had a zing of fresh lemon but the harissa gave it fire as well.
We also ordered the spicy potatoes, which came with peppers, onion and garlic and at £3.50 was real value for money. The mains we ordered came at the same time. My dining partner went for the lamb shoua’af (£5), essentially a wrap comprising char-grilled diced lamb neck, lashings of fresh mint sauce, paprika and crunchy salad. It was filling and delicious.
I went for the chicken shawarma (£4), which again came in a wrap and was packed full of the lovely warming flavours of garlic and pickles, all mixing together.
There’s no bar at Caravenserai but they serve some enticingly named juices, teas and coffees. All told, our bill for food came to a worryingly meagre £17 (and that included £2 for drinks, which we never received but this was something we only realised after we had left - but given the overall price we weren’t too disappointed. Service was efficient, polite, the staff oozing an effortless confidence, grounded in the knowledge of their food.
In summary, Caravanserai has to be right up there with some of the best street food places in Leeds. They also cater for weddings and special events and take bookings for their 14-seater table in one of the most enchanting dining spaces you’re likely to find in our city.
Address: 1 Crown Street, Leeds
Tel: 0113 234 1999
Opening times: Mon-Thurs 10.30am-11pm, Fri 7.30am-2am, Sat 10.30am-2am