Yorkshire’s reputation for food may be on the up, but it’s fair to say it still has a way to go to match the prowess of the Basque Country, a 3,000 square mile stretch of northern Spain boasting a veritable galaxy of Michelin stars.
Known for its exhilarating, exuberant food scene, heavy on innovation and flavour, it’s practically a must-visit for anyone interested in seeing a population obsessed with gastronomy.
Luckily for those who want to try Basque food but don’t fancy the plane fare, there’s now an alternative, smack-bang in the middle of Leeds city centre.
And while it might not compete with the experience of gulping down a series of elaborately crafted pintxos in San Sebastian with the ocean breeze in your hair, Pintura is a mighty fine place to eat.
It’s not the first Basque-inspired eatery to find a home in Leeds, but spread over four floors it’s significantly more ambitious in scale than Bilbao, a cocktail and tapas bar on Granary Wharf that opened in 2014.
Pintura’s muted facade and darkened windows make it relatively easy to miss for those heading between the Marks and Spencer end of the Trinity Centre and Commercial Street.
But if Oliver’s experience is anything to go by, word of what awaits inside appears to be spreading fast. Our attempts on a Saturday to get an evening booking before 9.30pm were to no avail, and after opting for lunch instead the place filled up with a noticeable speed as we ate.
Inside, the decor is a mixture of the classic (leather seats to sit in and blue tiles at the bar) and modern (exposed brickwork and oversized lampshades hung in close proximity to the tables). There are large cultural posters from the old country on the walls, some in Spanish and others in Euskara, the language of the fiercely independent Basque region and full of Ks, Zs and Xs.
The menu, printed on a piece of A3 paper left at each place setting, is mostly tapas-style small plates with a smattering of picotear (to peck at) options, cold meats or cheese, and desserts, with specials on a blackboard.
Some of the items are familiar, others less so, and the beef and game are sourced from the Basque Country itself rather than relying on local produce. The two kitchens where the food is prepared are both open to public view and just a few feet from where diners are eating.
The food is presented without any undue flourishes but all tastes memorable. We order a selection and it arrives in dribs and drabs, giving us time to cast our eye over each plate before the next one makes its entrance.
We tee ourselves up with a couple of picotear choices, one a small bowl of salty Spanish almonds and the other smoked salmon flavoured with gin on a delicate toast. The salmon is a recommendation from the waitress, and though the gin doesn’t come through strongly it goes down in a couple of mouthfuls.
Boquerones, Spanish white anchovies pickled in vinegar, arrive on their plate served in a traditional tin, covered in lemon and garlic to kick the tastebuds into gear.
Next up is the crispy squid, or calamares, with the ideal ratio of crispiness to chewiness. In a novel twist it is served with a toned-down alioli dressing made with black squid ink.
Oliver’s highlight is the carrillada de cerdo (£6.95), a serving of logic-defyingly tender Iberico pig cheek served with a slightly bitter cauliflower puree and crispy ears.
Continuing the theme of bold, flavoursome food presented in a simple, yet striking manner, the Basque-style risotto (£4.95) comes in a miniature copper saucepan. A large part of its success comes from the use of Idiazabal, a semi-hard ewe’s milk cheese that is mixed into the rice along with truffle oil.
After a moment’s comtemplation before moving onto the desserts, we try one more dish. It’s Idiazabal again, but this time oozing from inside crunchy croquetas (£3.95) served with alioli.
Oliver is left with a serious case of food envy when his dining partner’s chocolate mousse (£5.95) arrives in a plant pot, surrounded by chocolate crumble soil and with a floral garnish. Citrus flavour from the orange blossom comes through strongly and it’s dark, rich and not too sweet.
My milhojas, a Spanish-style mille feuille with almond custard and vanilla cream, are well made and perfectly pleasant but a tad forgettable by comparison.
Pintura has a mostly Spanish wine menu and the staff are only too happy to provide a recommendation for food pairings.
In the end, Oliver decides to strike out on his own with a fruity and dry white Borsao, after a previous suggestion by a friend.
Service is friendly, attentive and personal throughout. Some punters might balk at a waitress leaning right into the table to offer recommendations, but such was her enthusiasm that we were charmed.
And it’s not just the food where the passion of Pintura’s creators is evident. Downstairs there’s a treat for lovers of juniper-flavoured spirits in the form of a stylish gin bar, serving among other things, Gin and Tonic ‘Copas’ in 21 ounce goblets. We make a mental note to return there soon.
The total bill of a few pence under £80.00, including service, for lunch, means the food at Pintura isn’t the cheapest tapas in town, but it takes the Spanish cuisine on offer in Leeds to a new level.
Even for those without the desire to visit one of Europe’s culinary hotspots, the Pintura experience of great food in stylish surroundings is highly recommended.
Address: Unit 3.26, The Trinity, LS1 6AP
Tel: 0113 4300 915