Colonel Mustard had: Main course: Caribbean ‘fish run down’ – market fish and seafood in a light curry stew with seasonal vegetables; Dessert: Prosecco poached rhubarb, white chocolate cheesecake, spiced biscuit, cacao pulp sorbet.
Over the past ten years luxury chocolate shop chain Hotel Chocolat have done a fine job of seeing a gap in the market for a high street retailer that caters to British people’s increasing taste for interestingly complex chocolate flavours. They have impressively capitalised on the desire for ethical, fair trade goods by acquiring and overseeing their own plantation in St Lucia (the only British chocolate company to source their cacao direct from their own plantation). This has led to a Caribbean hotel venture and now, their latest development, chocolate themed restaurants. 18 months ago Hotel Chocolat opened two restaurants, one in London and one here in Leeds. Given my enduring love of chocolate in both sweet and savoury flavouring, I was keen to try the Leeds one out and see if it is as much of a success as their shops or whether the chocolate makers may be overstretching themselves a little here.
This week was my birthday and, still settling into our new home, we decided against going away and visiting an extremely top of the range restaurant as in previous years. Instead we wanted to stay here and dine out somewhere in Leeds. The perfect opportunity to give Roast + Conch, the Hotel Chocolat restaurant, a try.
It was a Sunday night and we booked a table, but we really didn’t need to because the restaurant was virtually empty (we found out on arrival that it closes earlier on a Sunday, which may account for this), meaning there was a bit of a lack of atmosphere. Nevertheless, we were greeted with the celebratory cocktails that Professor Plum had ordered and they were excellent. A Cocoa Gin Martini, made with Hotel Chocolat’s cocoa gin, orange liqueur, cocoa bitters and an orange twist, was an engaging take on a classic, with just enough of the always reliable flavour combination of chocolate and orange to make it interesting.
We ordered some sourdough bread and chocolate dips to start while we waited and these were really good – cocoa butter, a chocolate pesto, and a particularly nice chocolate balsamic with the perfect rich bitterness of chocolate to improve the vinegar. This was quite reminiscent of the appetiser we had last time we went for a chocolate dinner, at York Cocoa House, but if anything the balsamic made these maybe a little nicer. Unfortunately, the rest of the dinner, while not at all bad, failed to live up to the creative and flavoursome use of chocolate that we had enjoyed on that occasion.
As befits their St Lucian plantation, Roast + Conch’s menu has a caribbean influence, meaning that my main consisted of a piece of white fish, some mussels and vegetables in a coconutty curry stew. It was fine and tasted perfectly good, but the only real chocolatey element was the addition of cocoa nibs to the stew, resulting in an occasional bit of chocolate taste rather than an all over chocolate element. Professor Plum, having Roast + Conch’s Sunday roast with cocoa gravy, found similar – a nice version of a traditional meal but with the chocolate element so underplayed as to be virtually irrelevant.
Even with dessert, chocolate’s obvious chance to shine, there was a lack of really strong flavours. My rhubarb and white chocolate cheesecake with cacao sorbet just felt a little lacking (although points for writing ‘Happy Birthday’ in chocolate on the plate!).
It feels a little like the restaurant is actually slightly timid about their use of chocolate as seasoning rather than proud of it, as if they worry they might alienate an audience that finds savoury chocolate a bit odd. Which is a slightly strange position coming from a chocolate themed restaurant! Chocolate is a strong flavour, potentially overwhelming others, so in its use as seasoning for savoury food a little definitely goes a long way. That’s not to say, though, that a little more wouldn’t have been welcome here.
Like the accompanying shop, the Hotel Chocolat restaurant is not cheap. Unlike the accompanying shop, however, it perhaps doesn’t stand out from the crowd enough to justify it.
Also, if your restaurant’s above a chocolate shop, leaving a chocolate when you bring the bill wouldn’t go amiss.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: What Hotel Chocolat did for me was remind me how good York Cocoa House is. More commitment to using cocoa in more ways. The best dishes here – the cocktails and starter – were very reminiscent of food we’d eaten there. My main was fine, but apart from a slight caramelisation around the edge of the beef it wasn’t significantly different to the usual pub Sunday roast (except in price!). The pudding was a very good chocolate lava cake and a slightly awkward cocoa nib ice-cream. Very nice, but not hitting it out the park the way you’d like a chocolate restaurant to do. Frankly, for the price, you might as well spend the money on a train ticket to York and have something just a little bit more special.
Something that comes up in a lot of the tripadvisor reviews is the automatically added gratuity – I know it’s more common these days, but it’s still awkward to include it prior to the total, and it takes the choice away from the diner. It gives the impression the management don’t trust the service to be good enough to ensure diners will tip of their own accord (and also makes me question how well they pay their staff if they need to force diners into tipping). I’d have tipped more than 10% for the birthday touches, if I’m honest, but since the bill already included a tip the card machine doesn’t give the option to add anything and leaving a handful of silver on the table simultaneously looks cheap and showy. Sorry, staff. You weren’t brilliant (considering there were only three couples in the whole restaurant), but I’d have rounded up for you.
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