Thomas Chalk is all for kicking kale out of the kitchen, but found much to enjoy at his first Leeds Indie Food event of the year.
Plant Styles’ entry to the Leeds Indie Food Festival programme was a sharing menu of plant-based dishes, consisting of three courses – a starter, 5 sharing plates and a dessert.
Several local suppliers were name-checked on the menu for supplying ingredients, and while there was no claim that all ingredients were local, it was a nice touch (especially in the context of the Festival) to give recognition to Leeds Bread Co-op, Nell’s Urban Greens, The Numilk and Northern Bloc ice cream. Local makers of fermented tea soft drinks Sodada Kombucha were featured. Laynes are presumably unlicensed, as the alcohol policy was bring your own.
The starter was based around Leeds Bread Co-op’s produce, paired with miso butter, an antipasti dish of olives, an artichoke heart and sun-dried tomatoes, and a dish of oil and balsamic vinegar. The antipasti were good, and I’m sure the oil and vinegar were as well but I was too caught up in slathering the miso butter on the bread to get around to that element of the course: the butter was, I think, based on soya margarine or similar, and seemed to have been whipped – much as whipped (milk-based) butter is lighter than unwhipped, this butter was satisfyingly rich rather than heavy and greasy. The miso had been added in a just-right there-but-not-there amount, rounding out the flavour with savoury depth without being distinctly miso-y, which would have jarred with the rest of the plate.
The decision to bring all five of the main course small plates at the same time was a little risky: as well as the slight overcrowding on the table (a luxury problem to have, admittedly), the diverse influences that informed the dishes could have been jarring. We overcame this by eating the plates one at a time, and the sense of hopping from South Asia to Italy to India felt like welcome variety rather than muddled planning, though the last dish we ate, curried roasted cauliflower with squash and cultured coconut, had become a little colder than we would have liked. The cauliflower was a hearty quarter-head complete with stalk and leaves, and had been roasted with a rub of, we were told, twenty different spices. The roasting was done to perfection, with the finer parts retaining some bite and the hardier stalk and leaf ribs not having too much. The spice rub tasted good, though the texture was just a little dry and dusty. The cubes and puree of squash provided a welcome moist element to offset the spices, though would have benefitted with spicing. I don’t know how the coconut had been cultured, but it had become the most coconutty coconut I’ve ever tasted, and the simple puree of it with coriander was a good foil for the earthy notes of the cauliflower and spices.
Of their all-vegan food, Plant Styles say that labels are not needed – they are just out to make delicious food that can be enjoyed by everyone. But it’s worth noting that the two dishes which were, for me, the most successful, were also the ones that most directly made me consider them in relation to non-vegan food. Toasted gnocchi with red pepper cream and pickled tomatoes risked being a plate of food in want of a big handful of cheese, but (and I say this as a serious cheese-lover) there was absolutely nothing it needed, dairy or otherwise; indeed, it was only afterwards, while trying to pretend I wasn’t running my finger around the plate for the last traces of sauce, that it even occurred to me to think about the absence of cheese. The red pepper cream, rich with what I suspect were ground cashews, was silky and comforting. A subtle pesto (possibly not basil – intriguingly elusive) clung to the gnocchi, as much a seasoning as a sauce. The gnocchi themselves had not been blanched, but rather toasted in a pan, giving them little intensely smokey charred patches to offset their softness. Vegan or otherwise, the judicious use of charring and caramelisation is an important part of a chef’s technique – note just how many of the dishes reviewed here make reference to it.
If the gnocchi showed off plant-based food by making me forget about cheese, the peanut butter cheesecake’ and crème brulee ice cream’s names inevitably brought thoughts of dairy back to mind. I’m pretty sure there was cashew at work here too in the cake (whoever can work out how to grow cashews in Yorkshire is guaranteed a namecheck on scores of future vegan menus in these parts). The texture was as fudgy and dense as you would want a dairy-based version to be, with all the sweet-savoury-salty notes that peanut butter brings (backed up with some salted caramel sauce, just to make sure), with the slight graininess of cashew that you also get from ricotta.
Northern Bloc had made the ice cream just for this Plant Styles pop-up, and had I not been looking for a hint of its plant-based ingredients (soy, I think, from the slight nutty edge that soy milk has) I don’t know that I would have picked it out as not being dairy. A shard of honeycomb underlined the sweet and burnt-bitter notes beautifully. For completeness, I should note that there was a raspberry puree, with strawberries that may have been poached – these were unnecessary in that they were eclipsed by the cake and ice cream. Extraneous fruit or not, I haven’t had a better dessert for a long while.
As for the other dishes on the night: there was a pearl barley risotto with wild mushrooms, white truffle and a little asparagus, a kale Caesar salad with black grapes, chick peas and radicchio, and smoked tofu with shiitake mushrooms, miso caramel, green beans and tenderstem broccoli. The risotto was nicely done, and somehow achieved the feat of not triggering my rapid-onset boredom with truffle (the first two or three mouthfuls of something with truffle are a delight, but then it’s all diminishing returns from there), but the mushrooms were still a touch stifled by their more strident fungal cousin. The smoked tofu probably wouldn’t convert a determined tofu-phobe, but more fool them: it had been pressed enough to not be soggy and pappy, without tipping over into being dry and grainy, and the hit of smoke nicely complemented the gentle charring on the vegetables. The miso caramel was far less sweet than its name suggests, and as with the miso butter showed an assured hand in not overdoing this powerful ingredient.
The only dish that didn’t work, for me, was the kale salad. I’m not the biggest fan of kale. Raw, it is incredibly (I’d go so far as to say inedibly) tough unless it is given a vigorous massage, as was the case here. All credit to Plant Styles for their massaging, though I’m still inclined to think that what kale actually needs is being taken into the alley out back and given a good kicking. And then leaving there. The cashew cream that stood in place of mayonnaise worked well, but the radicchio lacked bitterness and the whole ensemble would have benefitted from a good pinch of salt.
It would be extremely unfair to finish this review on the negative note of a misfiring salad, though. (And maybe kale sympathisers would have rated this as a highlight. Happy to discuss in the alley out back.) We left singing the praises of the lovely serving and kitchen staff, and of the other dishes, all of which had shown off vegan food, and Plant Styles’ cookery, very well – and two of which were absolutely sublime.
Feature photograph by Ben Bentley.