Pintura promises a warm Spanish welcome, which is exactly what Jill Turton needed when another restaurant gave her the cold shoulder.
Let me get this off my chest first. This should have been a review of Leeds’s Ox Club which opened in December to quite a buzz. I was keen to go 1) because it arrived via the people behind the popular Belgrave Music Hall, 2) because they had taken Big Lil’s Saloon Bar, a notoriously dodgy Headrow boozer, and turned it into a cool new restaurant, beer hall and music venue and 3) because it trumpeted “a custom made grill… imported from Michigan”.
Email us to book, advised the website. So, one January Monday, I did. Redoubled the reservation on their answerphone. Messages were not returned but on the clear website promise that they were open Monday to Saturday, 5pm-10pm, I foolishly schlepped 25 miles into Leeds only to find chairs stacked on tables and a young man in the ‘Beer Hall’ who didn’t know when they were open but thought it might be closed on Mondays “because it’s a quiet time”.
So where to eat in the city centre on a Monday night? Fortunately Pintura, the newish Basque-inspired tapas bar bolted onto Trinity, was open and contrary to Ox Club’s defeatist view of quiet January Mondays, all three sprawling food floors were filling nicely, plus the basement bar.
The building, a waiter told me, had once been a storage area for M&S next door. Now it’s all iron staircases, exposed ceiling ducts, white metro tiles, a copper-topped bar and a great deal of trailing fake ivy. It’s lively and fun.
A couple of £1.90 pintxos from the specials board got us going: morsels of chorizo topped with piquillo pepper on some crisped bread and a lightly battered fried wild mushroom with pickled mushroom alongside. Both were excellent paired with a glass of fresh, minerally Txacoli wine, poured from a height, Basque style, into a tumbler.
The menu has its fair share of the usual tapas suspects: patatas bravas, albondigas, gambas a la plancha, calamares fritos, but expands to more authentic Basque dishes like the blackboard special of ajo blanco, a chilled almond soup garnished with grapes and crunchy toasted almonds. It looked the part but was sadly bland. Where was the garlic? Where was the slug of olive oil?
Ditto the tarragon mayonnaise that accompanied the onglet (hanger/skirt steak) but the beef itself was excellent. The Pluma Ibérico Iberian pork steak was gorgeous too, served pink and at £9.95 the most expensive dish on the menu with an accompanying copper pan of well-seasoned kale, pancetta and pine nuts that doubled the wow factor.
A risotto dish, made Basque-style, not with rice but with orzo pasta, was helped by a dash of salt, but it was still light on the promised flavours of smoked cheese and truffle oil. The bacalao and pea puree, again was respectable but could have been so much better with bolder seasoning.
The best combination of taste and texture came ironically from a dish that didn’t require any cooking, a salad of salty Picos Blue cheese, crunch from smoky almonds, a touch of chicory bitterness and sweetness from onion puree. Nice work.
Two pintxos and six small dishes were plenty, in fact, too much for two so we passed on dessert where I would otherwise have been a sucker for the Santiago tart made with orange and almonds.
So who is Pintura? Who can afford four floors of Trinity real estate? It’s not part of a chain although, without meaning to be disparaging, it feels like it. Our on-the-ball waitress told us there’s only one Pintura but that it is part of Leelex, a hospitality group. They, I learned, run Oporto, Jake’s Bar, Neon Cactus and Cielo Blanco and the now departed Angel’s Share in Chapel Allerton.
Ged Feltham is the brains behind Leelex, a Londoner who stayed on in Leeds after Leeds Met, opened Oporto in 1996, one of the first new wave café/bars in The Calls, and then the rest. The company also has the Portobello Star in Notting Hill and their own brand of Portobello Road Gin which may account for the substantial menu of gin cocktails.
I’ve been to San Sebastian where magnificent displays of small bites make pinxto-hopping (the Basques call them pinxtos not tapas) de rigueur.
Pintura is some leagues from the bars of San Sebastian’s Old Town but they make a decent stab at a menu with some strong northern Spanish ideas and ingredients and a wine list rightly dominated by Spain. I could have wished for equal confidence in the seasoning but overall they fed and watered us well, took nothing for granted and welcomed us warmly on a cold January night. Ox Club take note.
• Pintura Basque Kitchen & Bar, 1 Trinity Street, Leeds LS1 6AP. 0113 430 0915, pinturakitchen.co.uk. Open: Monday to Thursday and Sunday, 10am-midnight; Friday and Saturday, 10am-1am. Dinner for two inc. bottle wine and service £80.
Drinks Selection 5/5