I’d hate to be running a restaurant in Leeds these days, there are just so many of them.
As well pubs, old and new, serving cracking meals, there are Thai, Japanese, Indian (traditional and modern), Chinese and of course, pukka British and proper French spots such as Sous Le Nez, all vying for our (and increasingly Michelin’s) attention.
If the Brits yearn for what they eat on foreign holidays then hola and olé and buenos dias to Spanish food. Spain is our most visited country and what do we bring back but a sun tan, Larios gin at nine quid a litre and a familiarity with paella and the snacks known as tapas or pintxos?
In Espana, tapas is eaten in portions priced to match their size, from two-bite morsels to other creations needing a dinner plate. The Spanish have tapas as two or three small snacks, with a glass of wine or lager, bought straight off the bar or hot ones from the kitchen. Some bars, or at least the ones I’ve visited, offer free tapas to drinkers. Whatever the combination, it’s usually a fleeting engagement, from bar to bar, bar to home, bar to restaurant. The ambiance of this kind of tapas traffic, the variety from one to the other, the litter of tear-out paper wipes and wooden skewers does not migrate to the land of Brexit. Most UK tapas joints are of the seated variety. We are expected to make a meal out of them. Ergo, it is not a true Spanish experience per se, even though the tapas might be authentic. And even in Spain it can be an expensive way to eat (not very much), so the dire Euro/Sterling exchange rate can’t be helping.
Ambiente, in The Calls (they also have two branches in York and another in Hull), is making a good attempt to capture the Spanish experience, though.
In Spain, tapas is not over-seasoned (nor is it here). You’ll enjoy dishes for the taste of the toppings: cod, eggs, anchovies, sardines, dusted with paprika or aioli (garlic mayonnaise). Order three or four plates per person, we were advised. So we did. Three each, actually.
Ambiente’s menu is helpfully printed on the paper place setting. Equally helpfully, they are segregated into meat, fish, vegetarian; descriptions are concise and accurate.
Tapas I’d have again at Ambiente include alcachofas y patatas (£4.95) and the artichoke hearts and confit potatoes, which were roasted in a basil puree with a hard-baked egg in the centre (some might prefer it soft). It is very good indeed and quite sustaining.
Judias verdes (£4.50) was another belter - fine green beans fried with garlic and sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. Not as hearty a helping as the alcochofas and potatoes but bursting with flavour.
There were also prawns in batter (five for £6.95), rescued by the aioli. The meat plates have been lauded on web reviews but were trumped by the merluza asada (£6.50), a good serving of roast hake with puree of broccoli.
We drank Mahou, the lager from Madrid, and a Leeds IPA, (both £2.45 a half pint) and Crianza Red (£7 for 250ml).
Table settings are smart and so is the interior of this skilfully converted warehouse. One sour note is the splashes of candle wax on the glass and sills of the window by our table which made it look a little messy. Noise levels were tolerable and conversation easy but the cold temperature less so on a winter’s night - we were inclined to put our coats back on.
Service was friendly and informed. The food is sourced both locally and from Spain but we were told supply chains are already being hit by the kerfuffle caused by Brexit.
One point to note: table bookings have a two-hour time slot. Our food came promptly but also ‘as and when it was ready’, we were advised. This did not cause a problem.
The dining area is on the first floor, reached by a wide staircase which faces the street entrance. There is also a terrace overlooking the river. It’s a great spot for couples or families just who yearn to soak up the sensations of warmer climes, as we shiver through winter.
Ambiente is just a 10 minute walk from the railway station and in the beating the heart of the city centre. Leeds Playhouse is a stone’s throw away and just across the river stands the Royal Armouries Museum, plus there’s parking (if you can find a spot) at Brewery Wharf. Ambiente delivers food with panache and adds to the diversity of the city’s dining scene. We spent about £35-£40 per head for three tapas dishes, including dessert and drinks.
The YEP Oliver Awards Shortlist supplement will be out on January 24. Voting for our ‘People’s Oliver’ award is underway now: log onto: www.oliverawards.co.uk/award-category/the-peoples-oliver/ to register your vote.
Address: 36-38 The Calls, Leeds, LS2 7EW
Opening times: Seven days noon-10pm
Telephone: 0113 2461 848