When it comes to dining out, venturing into the badlands of suburbia can be a somewhat fraught experience. It’s a bit like betting more than you should on a horse you’ve never seen before or sitting down at a roulette table and deciding, what the hell, put it all on black.
Spontaneity it one thing but experience is quite another and I’m sure, like me, you’ve ended up somewhere you wished you hadn’t with a gaping hole in your pocket.
The other thing, of course, is you have to voluntarily give up the glitz and glow of the city and in that sense it’s like walking out into the cold, driving rain without your coat. Metaphors aside, you can pretty much survive without your coat in the city - it’s a heat island, for god’s ake - and in any case you’re only ever ten paces from the next bar whose sounds and smells will quickly make you forget such thing as cold.
You leave the city at your peril.
The road to Cookridge is bland and functional, it’s pretty much the nine-to-five you strive throughout the week to forget. It’s the ring road and then the A660, heading out into bleak suburbia with its rows of pale-glow streetlights and, turning onto Otley Old Road - which, I grant, in itself, sounds somewhat nostalgic - there are rows of houses with neat gardens you wish you could afford and then, a short way up on the left, is Gusto.
To be honest, it didn’t look like a restaurant to me at first. It looked, well, functional. That word again. It looked like an office building or a dentist’s or, at a push, like when they build a new housing estate and most of the tiny identikit houses are the same except for one or two, which, for some reason to do with planning laws, are slightly bigger. It looked like that.
There’s a car park bang opposite, right in the middle of one of the immense grass verges they enjoy in this part of Leeds. Walking toward the door, it felt like Christmas - the interior was dark but inviting. Once in the door, we were warmly greeted. And then seated.
The restaurant is split level, we opted to sit above, next to a sleek glass partition offering views of the lower level, which has an open kitchen busy with chefs and a feature pizza oven. In spite of its suburban location, the vibe here is refined, elegant, elevated by strings of fairy lights which are not overdone, the lower level offers a mix of deep brown tables and tanned leather booth seats. Service was good from the off too, our waiter chatty - but not overly - and relaxed, confident.
Ticks in all the right boxes so far.
To whet our appetite, we ordered olives (£2.95) and some baked foccacia bread (£3.75) with olive oil and balsamic to dip. Excellent. The menu is straightforward enough - a relief, actually, from having to leaf through endless pages. There are some dishes to pique your interest, like the roast lamb rump £17.95 with buttered soy beans, cabbage, trofiette pasta and semi dried tomatoes and the Gusto burger (£12.95) in a brioche bun with melted mozzarella and fries - why not?
But it’s the over roast pork ribs (£7.95) with tomato barbecue sauce and Tuscan beans and also the cold smoked salmon (£6.95) with apple and celeriac remoulade and roquito peppers, to which we are drawn for our starters.
The ribs were comfort food in every sense: tender, lip-smacking and falling off the bone, while the salmon with its roulade and tiny roquito peppers (spicy and sweet at the same time) was also satisfying.
For my main I ordered the pan roast duck breast (£15.95) with buttered cabbage, pancetta and amara cherries. I ordered it pink and the texture was perfect, the meat warm throughout and tender as you like, my only concern was the cherries, which despite not being sweet were still a little puddingy for my taste, although everything else about the dish was superb.
My dining partner had classic spaghetti meatballs (£10.50), a generous portion, the meat tender and well seasoned.
We also ordered a house salad (£3.95 and great), cabbage and pancetta with soy beans and tomato (£3.40 - interesting in a good way) and roast beetroot with reduced balsamic (£3.40, which were less impressive, the beetroot overcooked, the balsamic tang lacking).
To finish we ordered the impressive looking chocolate fondu (see the picture and drool), which at £10.40 is somewhat expensive but that said it is a sharing dish and is well worth it. It’s refined and elegant and something to savour, the highlight being the home-made sweet fried dough balls, which, when dipped in the copper pan of hot chocolate sauce, are so good they should almost be banned. This is an imaginative dessert with some nice touches, like the tiny jug of liqueur to pour over whatever it is you are dipping.
The tiramisu, which I ordered mistakenly thinking the fondu plate wouldn’t be enough (duh!), was £5.95 well spent, as the entire dish seemed to vanish in just a few spoonfuls.
All told with drinks, a refreshing Novita Trebbiano (£6.25 for 250ml) and a Becks Vier (£4), the bill came to £89.95
Portions were generous, the food overall better than you’d expect and in places verging on the refined end of the market. So, this is somewhere you could enjoy a romantic meal but it’s also somewhere you could take the children - the restaurant offers a fun ‘make your own pizza’ option for children and actually brings the raw ingredients to the table, each in its little bowl, together with a chef’s hat.
In short, they’ve got their heads screwed on right. Gusto, of course, is a chain with a dozen restaurants and two in Leeds - the other opened on Greek Street earlier this year. The Cookridge one, though, has been in situ a little longer and took over from Est Est Est, for those who remember it but, as we discovered in conversation with our waiter, its first use was as a police station and the old cells are now used as the walk-in fridge - and I suppose you can’t get cooler than that.
They also have a decent wine list with budget buys, ranging up to ‘what-the-hell’ mode if you fancy shelling out £195 on a bottle of champers.
Let’s not mess about, Gusto in Cookridge is good. In fact, it’s better than good. It will surprise you, it’s worth the trip, there’s attention to detail and once you’ve been, I’ll bet you’ll want to go back.
Address: 151 Otley Old Rd, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS16 6HN
Phone: 0113 267 2100
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-11pm, Sunday noon-10.30pm