Arts has been a popular haunt on the Leeds food scene for 25 years, but Jill Turton didn’t find it firing on all cylinders when she paid a recent visit.

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I don’t know if it was nerve, foresight or just financial pragmatism that led Dave McDermott, a designer at Yorkshire Television, and his son Joe to set up a cafe bar in Call Lane in 1994 and create what was the first cafe bar in Leeds.
Back then drinking in town meant dodgy boozers and The Calls was better known as the city’s red light district. If Prosecco on tap was still a long way off, The Calls in the early nineties was at the vortex of a brave new Leeds. Remember the industrial chic of Brasserie Forty Four and Leodis or the glamour of the Michelin-starred Pool Court newly relocated from the suburbs.
The Arts Cafe was the first of the independent cafe bars that now litter Call Lane. You could drop in for a coffee, a fag and the daily papers. Yes, you could actually smoke indoors in those dark, unhealthy days. It did Arts no harm either that scruffy old Call Lane had a bit of edge.

Charred avocado, ocopa, purple potato, peanut and homemade flatbread flatbread
Sobrosada salad. Picture Tony Johnson.

It was always more than a bar though. It was, and remains, a showcase for emerging artists with a rotating exhibition of contemporary art. It served good if not great food and most of all it was terrific value. For a fiver, Arts’ “lunch plates” would bring the likes of roast vegetables, hummus, potato salad and lemon cous cous, served with chunks of good bread.
It was the memory of those lunch plates that sent me off to Arts last week, that and the news that New Citizen, the events company which took over the bar late last year, had secured Simon Turner as its new head chef with a cv that included a fine dining restaurant in Avignon and four years at the Reliance.
I’m a big fan of the Reliance, the cool cafe bar in North Street. I downloaded Arts’ menu in anticipation. It included crispy pig’s cheek croquette with beetroot and smoked apple; queen scallops, avocado, quinoa and tiger’s milk; confit duck; sea trout; cauliflower curry and more. So it was disappointing to find the à la carte was available only in the evening.

Chocolate and avocado ganache.

The lunch plates are still there with a not unreasonable price rise to £9. The charcuterie plate includes some very good salami and excellent English cured ham. A more generous hand with the marinated aubergine would have felt better value. There are leaves, semi-dried tomatoes for a welcome sweet note, black olives and good bread, but this is a compilation. There was nothing here to suggest a chef at work.
The lunchtime mains are steak and kidney pie, fish and chips and pappardelle with courgette, mint, chilli and ricotta. None, except perhaps the pappardelle, really cuts it on a sweltering afternoon.

A salad feels more seasonal. Mine has a base of leaves, sliced purple heritage potatoes and croutons hard enough to take your fillings out. The dish is livened with scraps of fried sobrasada, the soft, spicy, paprika-laden Mallorcan sausage, then it’s topped off with a gently poached egg to smash up into a sauce. It’s a pleasant summer plateful.
The friend, who happens to be a vegan, has a limited choice, but vegans are well used to that. If there’s only one dish it needs to be good. There’s yellow courgette and asparagus soup or flatbread from the sandwich list. The flatbread, which is cold, dry and tough as old leather, comes topped with ugly, grey heritage potatoes. Besides the spuds, the flatbread also has (under-ripe) avocado, peanuts and ocopa sauce. Ocopa, they tell me, is a sauce from Peru made with peppers, onion, garlic and maybe cheese, but our server trails off. Whatever it is, it is a soft, green, grainy, salsa with maybe a faint hint of bell pepper, but it doesn’t greatly add to a lacklustre dish.

The addition of green tea to a crème brûlée really doesn’t improve on the classic that is so perfect. An avocado and chocolate ganache with raspberry sauce ticked the vegan box (assuming non-dairy chocolate) with the avocado giving it a pleasing smooth texture and no discernible avocado taste. Once again it was fine but no more.
I’m assuming Simon was not in the kitchen on this visit. I acknowledge too that a limited lunchtime menu is unlikely to be the best place to showcase his undoubted skills. Nevertheless, if he’s not here, he needs to know the kitchen is in capable hands. Certainly if Arts is to hold its own as the leading cafe bar in the city it needs to get on top of its game.
Arts, 42 Call Lane, Leeds LS1 6DT. Tel: 0113 243 8243. Price: lunch for two including two glasses of wine and service, approx £55.

About The Author

Jill Turton

Jill Turton is a freelance food and travel journalist who writes for numerous publications. She inspects restaurants for national food guides and is a regular reviewer for the Yorkshire Post. Jill is author of Good Food in Yorkshire and the Time Out Guide to the Lake District and with Mandy Wragg writes the Yorkshire online food guide www.squidbeak.co.uk'

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