GENTLY undulating curves of red brick, propped up by a row of slender iron pillars and dotted with dim bulbs, form a low ceiling above the long ribbon of a dining room at Brasserie Blanc.
Its windows look due south across the river, a constant reminder that this part of our city once throbbed to the heavy rhythm of trade. Just a few decades ago, when the barge traffic was already long gone, but those civic visionaries with an eye for regeneration had yet to arrive, the waterside had descended into disrepair and disrepute. After dark, this part of town was a place to be studiously avoided.
And though many of the factories and warehouses which once lined the riverbank were eventually removed in the name of progress, this imposing five-storey 19th century textiles mill was spared the bulldozer, and given new life as the Victoria Wharf office complex.
Brasserie Blanc occupies the ground floor, and as you approach from Sovereign Street you get a sense of the scale of this cathedral of commerce which has withstood the ravages of time to remain fit for purpose in a very different world. The gnarled and stained and mis-matched red brick of the high outside walls is repeated inside, where sparse decor, plain furniture and simple wooden floors embrace the past, creating a space entirely in keeping with the building’s heritage.
This character and history lends itself to a warm and benign atmosphere. Stepping inside, you arrive in a drinking area with comfortable sofas and an L-shaped bar. Curtains of twinkling fairy lights hang across the windows and are spiralled around the pillars.
One corner of the room has been corralled by a pop-up art class, working around a horseshoe of tables set up with paints and easels. As the evening progresses a group of about 20 budding Monets work on each producing their own version of his water lilies. Some are rather impressive.
A waitress in the restaurant’s trademark livery of white blouse and camel-coloured apron takes us straight through to a table in the heart of the dining room, and this careful, attentive service never falters all evening.
After considering a host of choices on the menu, I start with a generously deep mound of mussels, which are sprinkled with coriander leaves and bathed in a Thai red curry marinade (£6.95). It’s a winning combination, and the clatter of discarded shells adds to the murmur of sociable conversation and soft jazz around the room. My partner has gone for the smoked mackerel from the specials board (£5.95); thin slithers of the fish atop an imaginative colourful salad of green leaves, beetroot, parsnip and creme fraiche. The promise offered by these starters is fulfilled in all that follows. The boeuf bourgignon (£16.95) is a single slab of shoulder steak, braised into tenderness, topped with lardons, shallots and diced carrots, sitting atop a mound of mash. A delicious red wine jus sits in the well of the broad bowl; the crunch of the lardons, the creamy smoothness of the mash and the juicy yielding beef between them create a fabulous partnership of taste and texture.
A generous rubbing of paprika and fresh lime juice add significant zip to the free range half chicken (£16.50) which is served amid a colourful platter of sweet potato wedges, swede and a lime mayonnaise, while a luxuriously full-bodied Salentein Malbec (£32), packed with cherries and dark summer fruit, proves the perfect accompaniment to these two main courses.
After a modest break, desserts follow – a selection of stinging, mouth cleansing mango, lime and lemon sorbets for my partner (£5.25) and for me the drama of a beautifully-constructed pistachio souffle (£6.90), a Raymond Blanc signature. It seems almost a shame to burst through the browned crust which has risen spectacularly beyond the rim of the dish, yet to do so reveals a shock of soft green pistachio foam. Digging deeper brings you to a sediment layer of the richest dark chocolate. It’s a phenomenal combination, brilliantly executed.
Coffees complete a rather splendid and memorable evening in a restaurant which manages to tread a careful course between high quality dining and genuinely relaxed informality. The total bill comes in at a shade over £95, though a fixed-price menu of a limited list of courses offers even better value – and the Malbec was definitely an indulgent choice from a comprehensive wine list which offers some significantly less expensive choices.
We linger over coffees and the last of the wine, almost reluctant to leave behind this experience too soon.
For as the natural light begins to fade, the globe lamps above the sofas and the bare bulbs over the bar are faded up. The red brick walls almost seem to close in, enfolding us closer into the loving embrace of a modern restaurant comfortable in its post-industrial skin.
Factfile - Brasserie Blanc
Address: Sovereign Street, Leeds LS1 4BJ
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 10am-10pm, Sat 9am-10.30am, Sun 9am-9pm
Telephone: 0113 220 6060