Leeds is currently hiding in plain sight as Britain’s best city. They won’t thank me for telling you that, though. People enjoying a low-key, Saturday mooch in the gloriously preserved, tastefully re-loved Leeds Kirkgate Market, and stopping for a quick beer and plate of Lindisfarne oysters at The Owl, do not wish for a million cool-hunters from down south. Those ambling among the food stalls, eating a thali tray from Manjit’s Kitchen or an Istanbul-style fish butty from Mr Mackerel don’t need an influx of TikTok stars making lip-sync videos by the yorkshire pudding wrap stall.
That’s a real thing, by the way: slow-roast beef, fried onion and gravy wrapped in a large, flat, carb-heaven pudding. My knee-jerk reaction to news that Leeds folk were wrapping their breakfast bacon and eggs and fried tomato in a Sunday lunch accoutrement was that this lawless mayhem must be quashed. But, having seen the joy it brings, my policy has taken a U-turn.
Kirkgate Market is a joyful thing, and an unusual one. Old-school butchers and fishmongers, clothes stalls and spice vendors live happily side by side with Vietnamese banh mi sellers, a florist and a woman who sells knitting wool. It’s not easy in Britain – in fact, some would say it’s impossible – to keep old Victorian covered market halls intact, alive and moving onwards. These vast, echoey, cold spaces are steeped in history, jam-packed with experts in their field, but selling stuff we’ve now learned to order mindlessly online. Use them or lose them. We’ll be gutted when they’ve all gone.
So when I heard some months back that chefs Liz Cottam and Mark Owens had plans to repurpose a patch of the bottom of Butcher’s Row and open a pub called The Owl – the first pub inside the market for 150 years – it felt fantastically ballsy. I watched a video of Cottam, a former MasterChef contestant who went on to open Home in Leeds, as she scooted around the market, casing out the space and brightly informing the elder statesman of the stalls that she was coming to open a bar, take fresh oysters, crab, boar and pheasant off them, serve it with nice wine and make it a destination. Her business partner Owens, who has cooked at Le Gavroche and was head chef at formerly Michelin-starred The Box Tree in Ilkley, would make the likes of fish pie, rabbit suet pudding, game wellington and roasted nut and forest loaf. “Yer bloody mad,” one stallholder laughed as Cottam described her vision. It was a common theme. She hadn’t even mentioned that this could be described as fine dining, or that she was serving champagne, which was just as well, because that might have finished them off.
Something about Cottam’s upbeat, relentlessly charming brass neck had me rooting for The Owl to take flight. Because she was bloody mad, but she bloody did it, too. The Owl is an inconspicuous slice skimmed discreetly from one side of Fish and Game Row. It’s painted black. The door and signage isn’t immediately apparent; I walked past twice. Inside, it is dimly lit, in a cosy way, with an open kitchen, a scattering of tables and a bar one can sit at and enjoy Lindisfarne, Irish or Kumanoto oysters, or perhaps king scallop and parsnip soup with fresh crusty bread. Or braised game sausage rolls with mash, followed by a bowl of cherry crumble with vanilla custard.
They open at 8.30am and do omelette Arnold Bennett and a four-cheese sourdough stack with Gentleman’s Relish pickle. They play a soothing blend of ska and reggae and the service is faultless. I manoeuvred myself into The Owl with no booking, at lunchtime, by sheer fluke, because it is mobbed at weekends – and rightfully so, because it’s uniquely marvellous. Cool, yes, but not too cool. And fancy, definitely, but still proper food. Just casually delicious. Mussels cooked delicately in white wine come with warm bread. Steamed dumplings are fat, thick, soft-skinned, slightly sweet clumps of joy filled with well-seasoned boar and venison or an earthy stew of mixed wild mushrooms, and served on a bed of buttered root mash and deep-scented gravy. Lemon drizzle pudding turns out to be two thick slices of shortbread sandwiched with wonderfully abrasive lemon ice-cream, tastebud-tasering Sicilian lemon curd and some thankfully balm-like white chocolate.
It was lunchtime, I was alone in Yorkshire and in that merrily unfortunate position of wanting to carry on ranging along the menu, but being thoroughly incapacitated by rich, remorseless gluts of fat, sugar and two glasses of champagne. In fact, I was so full, I could no longer truly feel my feet. Never mind, owl be back.
• The Owl Fish and Game Row, Leeds Kirkgate LS2, Open Mon-Sat 8.30am-5.30pm (10pm Fri & Sat). About £30 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service.