El Gato Negro brings the flavours of Spain to downtown Leeds and brightens up a winter’s day, writes Amanda Wragg.

El Gato Negro, Leeds
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When Simon Shaw opened El Gato Negro in Ripponden in 2005 there were raised eyebrows. Was opening a tapas restaurant in an out-of-the-way village in the Calder Valley a brave or foolish move?
Well, it didn’t just work – it was a triumph. He built it and they came – from all over. Broadsheet food critics fetched up and heaped praise, with The Guardian’s Jay Rayner hailing the “remarkably convincing tapas menu”. Shaw regularly went to Spain with an empty suitcase and a roll of cling film to bring back ingredients. It would have to be one hell of a suitcase today; his empire includes King Street in Manchester, a site in Liverpool and now a converted bank on East Row in Leeds.
On a sharp Friday lunchtime, we’re first into the vast cathedral of a place and there’s not much to soak up clatter; it could easily feel cold but it doesn’t. Originally a bank, it’s all Burmantofts ceiling tiles and monumental staircases. Jamie Oliver was the most recent occupant with his ill-fated Italian chain; we’ll draw a veil over that. Some work has been done since then, so find comfy leather booths, commissioned artwork on scrubbed brick walls and exposed iron beams. By 1pm business is brisk and there’s a happy buzz of bank workers, smartly got up lunching ladies and (whisper it) Christmas shoppers. Shaw has always recruited well and he’s pulled out the stops here; staff are efficient and warm (Louise and Jerome: top marks.)

It’s a menu that grabs you by the collar and pulls you in. Most of the classics are there plus one or two items that I’m not sure are native, but who cares when the ox cheek has been cooked for a fortnight, is as black as night and melts like snowflakes in your mouth? My advice is to skip breakfast and order with wild abandon. Patatas bravas, braised pig’s cheek and roast chestnut empanadas, deep-fried Monte Enebro cheese with orange and rosemary honey, white onion rice, chargrilled artichokes and grated Manchego, Morcilla scotch eggs with mushroom duxelle, apple puree and aioli… we didn’t have all the above but not far off.
Who can resist cauliflower cheese croquettas? This playful riff on a teatime classic doesn’t disappoint, the fabulously light, crispy outer shell giving way to soft cheesy loveliness. Likewise spicy prawn and crab fritters revved up with a clever mango and orange sweet and sour sauce. The salt cod croquettas need a bit more seasoning but it’s a tiny gripe. A perfect tortilla floats by, a head-spinning mix of soufflé, cheese and spuds – it has us nodding wordlessly in unison. A dish of subtlty spiced Syrian lentils triggers a Proustian rush – I remember these so well from the Ripponden days. A faultless Tarta de Santiago with salted caramel ice cream finishes off a memorable lunch.

For the last three years Shaw has been working with Master of Wine Miles Corish and they’ve produced a lively, interesting list with some cracking modern Spanish reds and whites from independent producers, and thanks to the Coravin system (a way of extracting wine from the bottle without removing the cork) you can try a glass of wine you might not know, but intrigues you.
A groovy cocktail menu features the likes of a Catalonian Collins (“it’s pink, fruity and bloody delicious”) a classic Negroni, a Perfect Gentleman and a Senorita’s Kiss. There are a handful of non-alcoholic cocktails – I can vouch for Designated Driver (blood orange and bitter lemon shrub). The terrific sherry list will get some hammering when I’m not about to drive across the M62.
Shaw’s long and distinguished career has hit its peak. It can’t be easy managing three big restaurants in three cities, but he’s pulled it off, and last week was a benign presence in the open kitchen on Park Row, looking positively perky. He knows a thing or two about crowd-pleasing and it was all working sweetly.
I’ve long had a retirement dream that finds me resident in a small Spanish town with a handful of tapas joints and a bar stool to glue my backside to. I can’t think of a better waste of time.

Croquettas, jamon iberico, manchego, a glass or two of chilled Manzanilla, decent company and a good book. In the meantime, El Gato Negro will do nicely. Who’s in?
El Gato Negro, 35 Park Row, Leeds LS1 5JL. Tel: 0113 322 0763. www.elgatonegrotapas.com. Open seven days a week, 12pm to 2am.

About The Author

Mandy Wragg is a freelance food journalist, writing and inspecting for the Yorkshire Post, Alastair Sawday, the Morning Advertiser, the AA, Cool Places and David Hancock's Inn Places. She co-writes www.squidbeak.co.uk, an independent guide to eating, drinking and staying in Yorkshire.

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