WITH a name like a cartel boss in the latest Antonio Banderas film and an oversized Buena Vista Social Club picture adorning the entrance, you'd be forgiven for thinking Chino Latino was a cheap fajita joint with a penchant for tequila.
But once you've scaled the slightly forbidding stone steps from City Square you soon realise the low-lit black and red cocktail bar is more classy Tokyo clubland than plastic cactus in a poncho. In fact, the highly-stylized orange lighting and shiny black surfaces lend an air of urban chic to a space that feels more late-night club than oriental restaurant.
Chino Latino is as well know for cocktails as food, so what better way to start than with the signature drink, the Chino Mojito. Think the usual mojito but with the addition of lemongrass, coconut liqueur and cream. The result is something like drinking a cross between a green Thai curry and a classic mojito, which strangely, is an awful lot nicer than that sounds.
For something with slightly cleaner lines try the Bramble – served in a champagne flute with two glistening blackberries poised above the clear gin-based concoction, it's a simple, beautiful summer tipple.
The bar staff are polite, informed and more than willing to steer you around the cocktail menu. The drinks themselves are among the best in Leeds, but not cheap at around seven or eight quid.
The dining area is behind the bar. It's open plan and separated by two giant hanging chain mail curtains. The atmosphere is half bustling oriental canteen, half late night New York restaurant. Our waitress informed us the ethos of Chino Latino was sharing and, true to her word, all dishes are served in the middle of the table already sliced, rolled or piled in bite-sized portions (which is no bad thing when you're eating with chopsticks).
The menu's pretty extensive, with small plates, sashimi, ceviches, dim sum, sushi and tempura to start and a less daunting selection of meat or seafood mains. All the food is Asian, with Japan the biggest influence.
If you feel you can't pick your way through the myriad choices then three set menus are available, costing either 27, 32 or 37 a head. They are for a minimum of four and offer five or six starters and four mains.
As a group of four, and possibly facing negotiations of international treaty proportions to settle our culinary preference disputes, we signed up to the quick peace accord of the 32 set menu.
However, our waiter assured us he could personally select a better deal. We were slightly sceptical he'd simply be selling off the less popular dishes, or more likely the most expensive. However, his selection of five starters, four mains and a side dish ended up costing 33 a head, and the portions were excellent. Better yet, he even catered for our individual tastes – someone didn't like mussels, another demanded duck. I would highly recommend you make the most of the staff's knowledge.
The five starters arrived, all presented beautifully, and brought along another squabble – what was our favourite dish? The thin strips of marble beef, rich and meltingly tender, cut through with a sharp yuzu vinaigrette and sweet morsels of garlic? Or was it the delicate bundle of raw salmon ribbons, layered with paprika crisp, avocado and chilli that made up the ceviche?
My favourite was the scallops with sweetcorn puree and XO (brandy) sauce. The hardest bit with any scallop dish, apart from getting that glorious yielding texture right, is to ensure the delicate flavour of the shellfish sings through the other ingredients. Both were achieved perfectly.
Other treats included a translucent lobster dim sum, the lychee and mango sauce bursting with a refreshing vitality inside the mouth, again without robbing the seafood of its starring role.
Cocktails finished, we opted for a bottle of white rioja, which despite being the cheapest on the list, wasn't a snip at 17. It was however an excellent, if slightly unusual wine, and its crisp lemon notes worked well with the food. The mains prompted more flying chopsticks as we all tried to snaffle a little more than our fair share of each dish. Seared beef was centimetre-thick tranches of pink fillet, covered in a rich zingy Asian sauce. The sea bream were served as whole fillets, a fresh tomato sauce, brought to life with chilli and lemongrass, sliding off crispy charred skin. Its light, dancing flavours were a good foil to the dark richness of the beef.
At last, the final two mains provided something we could agree on.
Firstly the slow-cooked duck breast. We were all prepared to sacrifice our share of another dish to get a morsel more of the tender blushing-pink meat, dotted with tiny spears of sprouting broccoli and drizzled with an exceptional pomegranate reduction. Best dish was a unanimous decision.
The second popular vote was that the roasted chicken with Malaysian rice was disappointing. It wasn't bad, it just didn't live up to the high standards the other dishes, and its 17 price-tag, had set.
The vegetable tempura to accompany the mains was a towering pile of perfectly cooked asparagus, carrot and courgette, coated in a beautifully light, crispy batter. It is no mean achievement to coat fresh asparagus in batter, deep fry it, and still have the pea-green sweetness of the spears win the day.
Desserts are good, but less impressive than the other dishes, though the chocolate fondant was a pretty good stab at a notoriously difficult dish.
The best was the crme brulee. Presented like an art-piece, the shallow wheel of perfectly thick, indulgent custard was circled with spokes of fresh strawberry slivers. The brulee crust could have been thicker but the lemongrass added a subtle gilding to the rich egg lily.
Chino Latino is not a cheap place to dine. Mains cost between 17 and 25 and starters 7 to 14. What's more, the sharing ethos generally means you end up with more than one starter each. But the food is truly excellent, the best Asian fare in Leeds.
It might sound like the bad guy in a Mexican shoot 'em-up film, but Chino Latino is actually a modern, uber-trendy restaurant with great cocktails and even better food. It's more James Bond than Antonio Banderas, and even then, only Daniel Craig's slick new agent would fit in – Roger Moore wouldn't know how to handle his tanuki.
Chino Latino, City Square, Leeds
Opening hours: Lunch: 12-2pm Dinner 6-10.30pm
Tel. 0113 380 4080
***** EXCELLENT **** VERY GOOD *** GOOD ** AVERAGE * POOR