Oliver Review October 2010

Date added 09/06/2011

Whether you’re a once-a-week regular or first time visitor to La Grillade, it makes very little difference. Customers old and new seem to receive the same, very warmest of welcomes.

When we arrive at this basement eaterie on a busy Friday night, we’re greeted like old friends, though owner Guy Martin-Laval doesn’t know us from, well, Adam.The ebullient host is at the door before we are, pulling it open to usher us inside. My partner’s coat is whisked away and we’re seated swiftly in one of the house’s best tables (or at least I think so), right at the back, by the open kitchen. We’re quickly furnished with menus and a wine list and our waiter hurries off to fetch some water while we have chance to peruse our surroundings.

La Grillade is now in its 29th year in Leeds and if you’ve been at any time during the last three decades, it’s fair to say you’ll probably have noticed little change.

It attracts a loyal following – indeed the YEP’s readers declared it Best European Restaurant in our 2010 Oliver awards.

But, just occasionally, you’ll also come across one or two people who complain that La Grillade is somewhat dated. “It’s stuck in the 1980s”, one moaned to Oliver last week.

Well, you can see his point. La Grillade certainly has a bit of an oldschool wine bar feel about it. The walls are whitewashed and the prints that adorn it could certainly be said to be a bit dated – as could the signed photo of John McEnroe complete with sweatband and early 80s frizzy hair.

Rather than flashy surroundings, the focus here is firmly on food and service. It’s a concept that has served this French favourite well over the years. And, as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Our super-efficient waiter is back and gives us a verbal run-down of that night’s specials.

There’s plenty to whet our appetite on the main menu, however, and we’re already struggling to choose. Eventually, my partner opts to start with the crevettes thermidor (£8.80), a sort of take on the traditional lobster dish but with prawns instead.

They come as a healthy serving, baked and doused in a tangy gruyere sauce. Now, I wouldn’t have thought that prawns and cheese were the happiest of bedfellows. Certainly on paper it sounds a little odd, but in practice it works and, with a bit of bread to mop up the sauce, the dish was pronounced a winning combination.

I had selected the classic soupe a l’oignon (£6.25) – surely the test of any half decent French restaurant? Last year I endured one of the worst onion soups of my life at Cafe Rouge in The Light. But La Grillade’s traditional offering couldn’t have been more different. Packed full of caramelised onion flavours and topped with crispy cheese crutons, it certainly hit the spot. Other delicious-sounding starters include boudin noir sauté aux pommes (black pudding and potatoes), moules marinieres (mussels) and cuisses de grenouilles (roasted frogs legs – well it had to be on there, didn’t it?)

There is a great choice of fish and meat main courses but it would somehow be wrong not to order a steak in a French restaurant. I plumped for the filet grille (grilled fillet steak), which, along with a pepper sauce, came in at £24.70. Not bank-breaking but certainly on the expensive side. In the eating, however, it was simply superb. It melted in the mouth – a great quality piece of meat cooked to perfection. Pleasingly, it also came complete with fries and salad – so no pricey side orders to add on. My partner’s £17.80 cotelettes d’agneau grilles (lamb chops) were also nothing short of sensational. French trimmed, they were exceptionally lean. Cooked to a pink medium, they were so tender we could have cut them with a butter knife.

Other choices on the menu ranged from chateaubriand (grilled prime fillet for two) at £48, carre de chevreuil grille (grilled rack of venison for two) at £42.50 and loup de mer grille (grilled seabass, on or off the bone) at £19.50. There are also a couple of rather token vegetarian dishes. But what else would you expect of the French?

Sticking with our classics theme, for dessert we also went for typical French dishes.

My partner opted for the crème brulee while I selected the cheese.The brulée – so easy to get so wrong – was a triumph. The crispy caramelised sugar coating gave way to a thick mass of custard freckled with real vanilla. It was simply divine.

The cheese was equally impressive. Our waiter brought a tray bearing a selection of French cheeses which had been left out to breathe so the camembert and brie were all but oozing.

He carefully explained each varietyand told me what I could expect taste-wise. He even had the good grace not to look irked when I overlooked the one he told me was from his hometown. A bowl of fresh-cut French bread was the perfect accompaniment to the three cheeses (£5.60) I eventually selected.

Altogether with a bottle of superb muscadet (£27.50), a bottle of sparkling water and 10 per cent service charge, the bill came to £108.85.

Not cheap, but you could certainly spend more in Leeds city centre and come away far less satisfied. Unusually, as we made our way home, we realised we had nothing whatsoever to complain about. The food was very good and the service was excellent and we felt we’d got what we’d pay for. It’s not very often you can say that. And it seems that might be exactly why La Grillade has stayed the same for almost 30 years. After all, why mess with a winning formula?