I'VE BEEN so ill this week that even the beer tasted bad.
I'm reluctant to say this was the 'flu, because that's often an excuse for a heavy cold and something of an insult to those people suffering genuine influenza, which is seriously nasty. Quite what it is, I'm not sure, but the nausea, the listlessness, the coughing, the sneezing – and the general inability to do anything useful is more than the sniffles.
It's a good job I'm being very brave by venturing out to the pub. I do this stuff for you, you know.
Maybe the beer actually was bad, but it was Leeds Best and its quality can usually be relied on, not least because the brewery's bosses are often out on the town on spying missions, and will pull the stuff out of anywhere it's not being looked after properly. Yet at the Picture House, on this midweek afternoon the lovely fresh ale feels flat and heavy, dull and lifeless on the palate.
Perhaps it's the venue. I'm drinking in the Picture House on the side of the Merrion Centre, which has been there for years under various different guises but I'm pretty sure this is the first I have ever been inside. I've been seduced by the big letters on the etched glass outside which tell me that it serves cask ale.
Were it not for this sign, from outside it doesn't look the sort of place where they would give a monkey's about cask ale. But I wander inside and find a whole sexy little row of the blighters waiting for me along the bar. As well as the Leeds Best, there are Marston's EPA, Shepherd Neame Spitfire and dear old Tetley Bitter too. And after a few gulps of the Leeds beer it actually starts to taste better, I'm pleased to confess. Perhaps this is exactly what I needed to get on the road to recovery. Did I mention I've been ill?
All the same, ill or not, I wouldn't have naturally chosen to drink it here, in this soulless, low-ceilinged, low-lit, low-budget bar with its at-least-partly lowlife clientele and faintly edgy atmosphere.
With its 3.69 carvery, colourful gatefold menus advertising cocktails and cheap drink promotions, lively atmosphere and brisk no-nonsence service, at first I think I've stumbled into a Wetherspoon. I've never had too much of a problem with the pile'em high, sell'em cheap approach of that chain, not least because they have a commitment to selling real ale and pegging its price so it can compete properly with the wall-to-wall lagers on the bar. The same applies here, though this isn't a Wetherspoon, but rather a Crown Carvery, part of the huge Mitchell's and Butler's chain – and the first I've ever visited.
Many of the pros and cons of the more widely-known chain apply here too. Lots of people are tucking into the cut-price food and drink with gusto, but one or two sadly are right out of control, having drunk themselves to messy, unpleasant excess before six in the evening. When you're tucking into your carvery you don't want some drunken woman lurching into you and suggesting you kiss her, er, a**e – as happened to the poor chap at the table next to me.
The Picture House name suggests arthouse cinema culture, and while there's little to truly reflect that here, there are some interesting monochrome images of Monroe and Bogart and stills from a host of box-office smashes like Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing. A TV is tuned in permanently to the rolling news channel, automatic subtitling attempting to compensate for the lack of any sound. It succeeds hilariously, mangling quotes and commentary to the point where it becomes frequently meaningless. There's a report on the "natural hunt" racing, a quote from a "publican senator" from Washington, and we're on the campaign trail with rival candidates fighting a "barrel action" in Saddleworth. It's real "fork handles" entertainment, but I suspect it's not supposed to be.
The place opens early for breakfast, which is a damn fine idea and one which I might actually try out in the coming weeks. That I can now get a Full English, catch up on Two Ronnies-style news, and still get to work in plenty of time for the first coffee round of the day is the sort of knowledge which could play merry hell with my waistline in the months ahead.
Type: Budget carvery and alehouse
Opening Hours: 7am-11pm Mon-Thur; 7-1am Fri-Sat; 10am-11pm Sun
Beers: Tetley Bitter (2.05), Spitfire (2.25), Leeds Best (2.25), Marston's EPA (1.69), Carlsberg (2), Carling (2), Foster's (2.20), Beck's (2.60), Stella Artois (2.65), Kronenbourg (2.60), Guinness (2.65), Strongbow (2.60)
Wine: Reasonable selection from 1.90-glass
Food: Served 7am-9.30pm Mon-Thur; 7am-8pm Fri-Sat; 10am-8pm Sun
Entertainment: Games machines, rolling news TV
Beer Garden: Some roadside tables
Parking: Multi-storey parking nearby
Telephone: 0113 246 9297
BEER OF THE WEEK
With a strength and price tag analogous to that of a good red wine, Gyle 479 is rather more of a serious, grown-up, graduate-school proposition than a few of the beers you'll find on the supermarket shelves. It's sold in 750-ml bottles too, though its Grolsch-style swing top and opaque, determined black colour set it well apart from a soft merlot or fruity rioja.
At nine per cent ABV it is – by some distance – the strongest beer yet to come out of Leeds Brewery, and has been ageing in Bruichladdich whisky barrels from the island of Islay since the summer.
This has become a tried and tested technique – Scots brewer Innis and Gunn having really taken the idea of maturing beers in spirit casks right into the mainstream market. The wooden casks retain some of the depth and peaty warmth of the whisky, which is then absorbed into the beer.
You can almost taste the oak, in a stout that as flat and dark as midnight in Norfolk and smells like bonfire night, rich with caramel and toffee and gloopy black treacle.
There's more too, vanilla and chocolate and just a suggestion of surprising fizz to an unpasteurised bottle-conditioned beer which retains its live yeast, and might even develop and mature with age.
The beer is available from Latitude Wine Merchant in The Calls, Leeds.
Latitude boss Chris Hill said: "We are really excited to be the first in the UK to be offering this fantastic new ale. Although it's strong it has a lovely smooth, more-ish quality which makes it the ideal ale to drink with food. The bottle size is also perfect for sharing."
Sharing though is optional, and I didn't.