Leeds in the 1960s had a thriving coffee bar scene. This was long before anyone had ever heard of the leviathans of today, although the chap who owned the Riviera Coffee Bar was called Costa.
The salubriousness of the establishments varied from the basic, exemplified by the Ritz on Vicar Lane and the aforementioned Riviera on Upper Briggate, through the mid-range of the Carousel, which was two doors away from the Riviera, to the posh Del Rio on Lower Basinghall Street. The one thing each of these places had in common was that they were all situated in basements. I raise this subject as I seem to have spent the second half of my teens living underground in the City Centre and on descending the stairs leading to Distrikt I had a feeling of deja vu, not for the first time I might add.
It must be said that it does not have the most inviting of entrances, being a doorway situated up a blind alley off Duncan Street between Five Guys and Mommy Thai; but it gave the place a sort of forbidden feeling and an air of mystery. After negotiating the steps I entered the main room which had a great atmosphere, being quite dark with vaulted ceiling. It was divided into two halves, one filled with dining tables and chairs and the other comprising booths furnished with banquettes and longer tables, which would be great for groups of revellers. Revelry was not something in evidence when I arrived as I was the only person in the place, apart from the barman and chef.
I approached the bar and the very pleasant young man gave me a menu. He informed me that the delivery of chicken had not yet arrived and so dishes with that ingredient were off the menu. Whilst I was perusing the remaining options he told me that there was a chef’s special taco on for that day which was tuna. I had never heard of a tuna taco before so I thought that I would give it a whirl. I ordered a side of fries and a glass of Pinot Grigio (£6.40 for 250ml). I am normally a red wine drinker but I thought that I would make the booze match the food.
Although I love Italian reds I usually give their whites a wide berth as they tend to be of variable quality. It always amazes me that when an Italian white comes into fashion almost overnight, witness Prosecco and Pinot Grigio, they seem to come up with enough to satisfy the demand equally quickly. The one I had was excellent. It was fruity but still on the dry side and turned out to be a perfect match for the distinctive flavour of the tacos. I use the plural because when the dish arrived there were three small, flat, open, soft, traditional Mexican tacos rather than the usual American crispy folded ones. Because they were small and the topping comprised several ingredients, I chose to use the knife and fork provided so that I could better appreciate the flavours. I also didn’t want to roll them up and eat them with my fingers as that is usually the recipe for a dry cleaning bill to remove the stains from my jacket and trousers. The fries arrived in a separate bowl sprinkled with paprika.
If this is what tuna tacos taste like then they should be on every Mexican menu. The fish had been marinated and was served cold on a bed of onions and red cabbage, it was topped with a sliver of pickled cucumber and dressed with mayonnaise and fresh coriander. The flavours were a wonderful combination and would not have been out of place presented on a plate, without the taco, as part of a fine dining menu. Had they done so they could have just put one on a plate instead of three and tripled the price, which was £8.00. The fries were very well cooked and of a generous portion size; good value for £3.00. This was a perfect way to spend a lunchtime in Leeds and enhanced by the blues music emanating from the speaker behind me. How many other people can say that they have dined in the company of Howlin’ Wolf? There were no desserts so I settled for a black Americano at £2.00.
When I went to the bar to pay my bill the chef came out of the kitchen to ask how I had enjoyed my lunch. When I replied that I thought it was superb he smiled and thanked me, saying that this was the first time that he had been entrusted with putting one of his own creations on the lunch menu as a special. I hope that the owners give him more of a free rein.
Apart from the lunch, it was a great trip down Memory Lane to spend an hour underground in Leeds, listening to good music this time without having to put sixpence in the juke box. No matter how wonderful I remember the past as being, not even the Del Rio came within a million miles of serving food this good.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.