Leeds has two new chicken gaffs - but which is cock of the walk?
IT’S not enough to put food on a plate or drink in a glass these days – you have to have a story, too. Take these two new bars. The Lost & Found brand invent a character to lord it over each of their establishments, so while their first Leeds adventure in Greek Street debuted Yorkshire ornithologist Virginia K Stevenson, their second, transforming the old Leeds Club, is a homage to imaginary chemist and explorer Professor Benedict Pike with decor and ‘secret’ drinking den to match.
The marketing’s not so corporate quirky at Below Stairs on South Parade, in our view the best new serious cocktail bar in Leeds for years. Though their small but beautifully curated drinks list yields to a certain fluffiness: so '109 Miles to Filey' is inspired by a Yorkshire coastal walk, wild flower meadows, crashing waves et al, while the whiskey/sake/smoky Lapsang-fuelled 'Charred I’m Sure' asks you to imagine you’re a trader arriving in feudal Japan.
Which brings us to two very different narratives both involving buttermilk chicken. Let’s call it Little Bao Boy versus Absurd Chicken.
The first is James Ooi, whose meteoric street food rise on the back of a steamed bun has led to permanent outlet up in Hyde Park, Aiyo. The second, Absurd Bird, is a less tangible entity, a poultry-led street roll-out that has clucked around Bath, Exeter and London and has found a new nest in Trinity Kitchen.
James’ story is a straightforward account of culinary diaspora – parents from Hong Kong, dad came over to study in Leeds, renting not far from where Aiyo is now in Brudenell Grove, opened a Chinese restaurant in the North East. Now James as Little Bao Boy is doing his own contemporary take on trad Chinese, steeped in that heritage but encompassing buttermilk chicken and a street food vibe in a collab with Boss Burgers.
Absurd Bird is a different beast, drawing inspiration from the much tilled culinary earth of the US Deep South and its web page ‘About Us’ is a triumph of marketing chicken shit. Shame because the food isn’t that bad, just inferior to joyous Aiyo’s. Are you sitting comfortably? Then read on:
“With a desire to celebrate difference in all its craziness, its colours, shapes and sizes but with a sense of humour and fun, Absurd Bird was born. We dreamed up a tale of two outcast birds who form a heart-warming and unlikely friendship and embark on a series of outlandish adventures, including a jail break from the cuckoo’s nest, where they pick up a flock of eccentric, crazy and off-the-wall companions and together navigate the twists and turns of life. We hope to share their stories with you as our own story unfolds and you also begin to cherish the heart and soul of our truly absurd brand.”
Actually it’s no more absurd than anywhere else in an increasingly homogenised Trinity Kitchen. Wings, burgers, waffles, colourful beer cans, served with a smile by bearded lads happy to do selfies… same old. Well maybe a new one on me is AB’s ‘Chilli Choc Wafflewich’ where their ‘famous’ crispy fried chicken is slathered in their ‘own’ chocolate and chilli sauce in a waffle sandwich (£7.95)
I went for that ‘famous’ crispy fried chicken in a Nashville Hot Bird Burger (£6.95), where the tongue-numbing Xtreem Sauce obliterated other contributions, even the harissa mayo and cucumber pickle. Before the local anaesthetic kicked in the chicken was crispy and comforting. I’m told it’s ethically sourced and hormone-free, which is good. Mac & Cheese (£3.95) wasn’t so good.
Cut from Trinity Kitchen to Aiyo, whose name comes from a Chinese exclamation meaning enjoyment or excitement. The Boss Burgers cafe has been transformed by local artist Mike Winnard, who has covered the walls in appropriate murals – featuring a splendid Chinese dragon and carp swimming around the written phrase, ‘Mix It Evenly’.
That’s the advice when I order a massive bowl of Congee (£5), a dish I’ve had difficulty with in Kowloon, where this rice gruel can hide fish heads and unmentionable chicken bits. Here the focus is on shitake mushrooms (Aiyo is vegan-friendly, also try the deep-fried marinated tofu) and perhaps too much fried garlic.
Much more me is Grandma’s Massaman rice bowl with slow-cooked chicken thigh off the bone, a mellow, deftly spiced, ample dish for £6. Grandma gets credited, too, for the bao bun recipe. These are made daily on the premises. Mine is a perfect soft pillow for Korean-style buttermilk chicken superior to the Absurd folk’s, the hot sriracha sauce judiciously applied, the slaw spicy and juicy (£6.50). I feel bad spurning most of my salt and pepper fries, but Aiyo are happy to do doggie bags.
It’s BYOB. I grabbed a can of North Brewing Transmission IPA en route at Hyde Park Book Club. If you need a nearer booze fix Confidential bar fave East Village is a few doors down – a good spot to wait for a table if sixteen-cover Aiyo is busy. With such quality I expect that may well be the case. Alternatively, catch the Little Bao Boy at an event near you.