Let’s not beat about the bush, Malmaison, or Chez Mal as the restaurant is called, is posh.
The glass gleams, the cutlery sparkles, the glass-top tables look like polished blocks of obsidian, even the place mats offer a level of reflection one would struggle to find in other places.
It helps, of course, that the restaurant at Malmaison is subterranean. I remember coming here a few years ago and found the whole experience utterly spell-binding. It felt like I’d discovered a very expensive den but a den all the same and one with really nice seats and besuited business-types making solemn, meaningful conversation. I was on my own then and, as it turned out, I was on my own again this time, so that was the same but, in complete contrast, Malmaison has changed a great deal.
As I enter, there’s a scaffold on my left, the plasticcy whiff of resin and the chatter of builders, who, I am later informed by my waitress, are almost done refurbishing the conference rooms on the first floor. In fact, it sounds like the whole place has had a facelift, including the restaurant, which is now much more open, with some natural light slanting in through a series of oblong windows.
Initially, I don’t know whether I prefer the old place. I think the new design, with its spider-web light feels a little cold, if I’m honest. The old restaurant had a fireplace and a sense of underground chic, it was a place to secrete yourself for a late lunch, where you felt secluded and safe. I don’t want to overplay the redesign, because Chez Mal remains superlative in almost every way.
So, apart from the glitz, the warm welcome (the staff hand you menus and when it comes to pay the bill, take my credit card, as though they were handling a rare Ming Dynasty vase), it’s the food itself.
I arrive at 12.40pm (yesterday, actually) to find the place empty, although another couple arrived as I was eating. The menu falls into the ‘reassuringly expensive’ category, with even some of the starters (seared Cornish sea scallops) running to £13.50, although that said you can order a cauliflower veloute for a fiver but if you want something with substance, like the chicken liver parfait with glazed fig and port jelly, then you’re up to £7.50.
But let’s have a reckoning here, because is that expensive? Comparatively speaking, I would say not. We wouldn’t flinch at spending £20 on a takeaway and yet here we have fine dining on offer for under a tenner.
Anyway, I ate none of those but I did eat the smoked haddock fish cake (£13.50), spinach, poached brown egg on top, haddock flaking away nicely, with a lovely gloopy Hollandaise - sadly a tad underseasoned - washed down with a glass of Saint Etalon Melot (£9), so not cheap but so very, very worth it in every way.
MALMAISON, SWINEGATE, LEEDS