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Pintura, Leeds – restaurant review

The intention had been to review newly launched Headrow House from the people behind Leeds’ marvellous Belgrave Music Hall, but thanks to my exquisitely honed administrative skills, its food bit, Ox Club, hadn’t opened yet. So where to go? Where? Picture me flailing around, shrieking, “What’s new? What’s notable? Where can I find the good stuff?” to every passerby outside Leeds station. So, to Pintura, permanently booked up with enthusiastic punters for its “modern, authentic Basque cuisine”. It’s an enormous gaff: three floors, and so busy even at an off-peak hour that we have to wait in the basement bar for a table. It looks way better inside than its back-entrance-to-M&S frontage suggests, the full might of contract furniture company Andy Thornton’s Urban Vintage range (“instant cool for your venue”) deployed to pleasing, if by-the-yard effect.

The menu reads well, too. I actually believe that the chef and owners have been to San Sebastián. It also looks as though they’ve spent some time closer to home, in London’s Barrafina. It’s kind of Donostia-lite, with a few hoary old Spanish numbers (patatas bravas, albondigas, gambas a la plancha, er, mini-hamburguesas) as crowd-pleasers. Food arrives on boards and in shiny little copper saucepans: my mariscos con arroz, for instance – £8.95 for a ladleful of rice with “home-salted cod”, mussels (two) and prawn (singular). It’s remarkable for not being comprehensively awful, as so much kinda-paella is: the rice has bite, you can taste the saffron and the seafood hasn’t been obliterated.

But this kind of mild surprise at edibility is all I’m feeling: it’s all good enough without being in any way joyful. Even pan con tomate (Catalan) turns up as a quantity of watery, pallid tomato plonked on top of toast with a slick of oh-so-Basque pesto. Frying is strong: fine croquetas of manchego (La Mancha), greaseless calamares, decent, rice-pocked morcilla with a deep-fried but still runny-yolked egg. But octopus salad (Galicia) features a beast that’s been over-processed into woolly sliminess. From the specials, a more-mutton-than-lamb chop was obviously too large for portion control and cut in half. The less meaty half, sadly. Its acrid smoked aubergine puree is Rosemary’s baby food.

Where is their Ibérico de bellota from? It’s saltier than the pure acorn-fed I’m familiar with, which makes me think it might be recebo (acorn plus grain feed). They’ve helpfully removed the fat, too – pause while I do a Munch-esque scream – and it’s a little sweaty from the heat lamps on the pass. But we’ll never know, because the front of house have no idea and it’s not name-checked on the menu. What the menu does helpfully include is a glossary for those of us unfamiliar with jamón and chorizo. It tells us that every home in the Basque country has a leg of jamón on the go at any time of year. And that most Basque families preserve their own boquerones. Like the handsome posters that line the wall, this offers a fantasy version of Spain, though not a fantasy version of its food. I ate Barrafina’s milhojas (mille-feuille) recently and, beside that voluptuous beauty, Pintura’s version has all the allure of ossified Weetabix glued together with Bird’s.

So is this the work of passionate individuals so in love with the food of the Basque country that they couldn’t wait to introduce it to Leeds? Or a company with a concept? Three guesses. No, make that one. It comes from hospitality group Leelex, also responsible for the city’s Oporto (because they heart Portugal?), Neon Cactus and Cielo Blanco (because they heart Mexico?). Plus sundry other outlets. Well, you get the Pintura. That said, I guess the food is better than you’d expect from a joint where balance sheet, not chef, calls the shots. Portions are tiny, prices are not.

Anyway, all three floors continue to heave with happy diners, so I guess I should shut the hell up. I can admire Pintura for its sheer scale. For not entirely cocking up the cooking, even if ingredients, especially the meat, don’t come across as top quality. For paying lip-service to the contemporary Iberian menu; the charming greeter with her delicious, Italian-Yorkshire accent; the clued-up bartender and his list of niche and recherché gins (Rives, Jinzu, Aviation, Leelex’s own Portobello Road Gin) served in goldfish-bowl glasses. But don’t ask me to love it. Or, for that matter, to go back.

Pintura Unit 3.26, The Trinity, Leeds LS1, 0113 430 0915. Open all week, 10am-1am (2am Thurs-Sat, midnight Sun). About £25 a head plus drinks and service.

Food 5/10
Atmosphere 7/10
Value for money 5/10


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