When the Maven opened seven years ago, we thought it was pretty damn cool. It was dark and moody with chandeliers and dudes behind the bar who wore braces and poured cocktails from china teapots and offered 47 different gins. Which was a lot in those days.
Above all, it was so cool, you couldn’t find it. They didn’t bother with a sign, or a number. Instead you had to stumble around the scruffier parts of Call Lane among the amusement arcades and body-piercing studios looking for a black door, like an illegal speakeasy. You almost needed a torch to negotiate the staircase. It was a clever ruse. Its inverted thinking got the place noticed.
Now the Maven is serving food. With plenty of room upstairs they have redesigned the space and created a second-floor restaurant and private dining room. It has the same dark walls as the bar, a new cocktail bar at one end with glowing amber lighting highlighting a fine display of bottles, wooden tables and school chairs. For wackiness, there’s a life-sized stuffed bear on the landing. The chandelier is a cluster of antlers.
The menu is long and inviting. It has all the voguish ingredients: kimchi, harissa, ponzu. Clams come with garlic, sherry and oregano oil (£8); honey fried chicken with pickled cucumber, sesame and kimchi slaw (£8); chargrilled baby poussin has herbs, pomegranate molasses, freekah and harissa yoghurt (£13); seafood cataplana is a Portuguese seafood stew for two at £22.
Service is brisk: two menus, one à la carte, the other an early-doors deal of four dishes and a glass of Prosecco for £23. The menu, our server explains, is made up of small plates, choose three or four each and they will be served as and when they are ready. Yes, another restaurant that irritatingly serves its food “as and when”. To that end, one of our party of four gets his chosen dishes of clams followed by poussin way after the rest of us. Yes, we get you’re expected to share, but not everyone wants to.
The menu is divided into fish, meat, veg and “To Fill a Tooth”. The clue is in the name. The plates are very small indeed. Our server did warn us, so it should have been no surprise when the Portuguese Queijaria cheese, mountain honey, thyme and hazelnuts was no more than a few teeny-tiny cubes of cheese, a scattering of broken hazelnuts and a drizzle of honey. It was hard to see four quid worth on the plate. Ditto baked bread, butter and tapenade. £2.50 won’t break the bank, but there was barely a mouthful of some really good tapenade. So much for sharing. Might it make sense to charge more and serve more?
Four of us motored through 16 dishes that arrived thick and fast (apart from the noted clams and poussin). Some were really good, others fine and a couple just OK. Chargrilled broccoli (£7) on top of cornbread came in the OK camp. Tenderstem broccoli was accurately cooked, with a decent romesco sauce – peppers, garlic, almonds paprika – but a slab of dull and dry cornbread dragged down the what sounded like a promising bit of greenery. The crab cakes (£7.50) were fine, so were the clams, though £8 for half a dozen clams in garlic and sherry again seemed a bit steep.
The very good dishes were the kale and the chicken. Blanched kale came on top of whipped white beans, with freekeh and caramelised celeriac.
Our best dish was the honey-fried chicken: two decent pieces of heavily- battered and deep-fried chicken served with a drip of honey and a lively kimchi slaw – crunchy and slightly sour. Indeed, all the “slaws” that accompanied the dishes were good, none of them thankfully dolloped in mayo, but clean, fresh and crisp.
Puddings provided a pleasing warm fig cake which was sticky toffee pudding by another name served with almond ice cream; there was a respectable rice pudding and an achingly sweet chocolate tart.
Owner Claudio Antonino Lopes, aka Nino, opened the cocktail bar in 2011 after time served as bar manager for Harvey Nichols so he knew a thing or two about drinks. Now, in a city centre stuffed with bars serving very average food, he has again created something superior in its range.
That range may not be for everyone, more for millennials than baby boomers. The amp was already ramped up when we arrived at 6pm. The glammed up girls whooping it up at the next table were at near maximum volume by 7.30pm. A big, noisy party was arriving. Fair enough, it was Friday night. Me, well enough fed for the spend, I’m off home for a quiet cuppa before Book at Bedtime.
The Maven, 1 Call Lane, Leeds LS1 7DH, 0113 243 6047, www.themavenbar.com. Open, Tuesday-Friday, 5-10pm, Saturday, 12-10pm, Sunday, 11am-5pm. Price: dinner for two including bottle of wine and service, approximately £110.