The stretch of North Street that Wen’s calls home, just up from where arterial routes snake around the city centre, is not one of Leeds’s loveliest. Although there are other destinations here – the much-admired Reliance, the idiosyncratic Swine That Dines – it still feels like it’s competing with the traffic. Even so, when my cab pulls up outside numbers 72 to 74, I feel a flutter in my chest, which I quickly identify as a sweet burst of nostalgia’s butterflies.
In 1986 a restaurant opened here called Hansa’s, serving the vegetarian food of Gujarat. The head chef, Hansa Dhabi, had never before worked in a professional kitchen, but people loved the Gujarati snacks she cooked for fundraisers. With the support of her family, she decided to give it a go. Many decades before Asma Khan’s much-lauded Darjeeling Express, Dhabi opened here with an all-female staff. I was a third-year student at Leeds University at the time, flirting with the notion of being a grown-up. A year or so before I had leaned over from bed and retuned the transistor on my bedside table from Radio Aire to Radio 4. I was clearly now a man. I needed eating opportunities which reflected that.
Hansa’s had a deep green frontage and a fancy, wood-floored dining room which set it apart from the sturdy, flocked-wallpapered curry houses opposite the university. Because it was entirely meat-free it was relatively cheap, but the food was anything but basic. I recall intricate thalis, stacked with potent, complex curries and dals; salads and chutneys, presented in small, stainless steel cylindrical dishes, fitted in turn on to a circular metal tray. On the side there were puffed and flaky breads. It was a revelation and I felt like an adult simply for enjoying this food. I went back repeatedly until finally I left Leeds a couple of years later.
I missed Hansa’s but Hansa’s didn’t miss me. It endured for another 30 years. Dhabi closed the restaurant last year, retaining only the cookery school she had earlier opened as her retirement project. I’m aware I’ve written a love letter to a restaurant that no longer exists. No apologies. Hansa’s fully deserves it. But there is also context. Because the Chinese venture which has replaced it represents continuity. It too is a family affair. And the matriarch also plays a big part. “All our dumplings and xiao long bao are homemade by Mrs Wen,” the menu declares. This is worth knowing. The ready-made Chinese dumpling market in the UK has become extremely sophisticated. Often, the ones you eat in Chinese restaurants will have come in bags from the local Asian supermarket. Some can be very good. I have a freezer full of them.
But Mrs Wen’s are so much better. The spicy, minced beef pan-fried dumplings have gossamer and silky skins, which are precisely crisped on the bottom. They hold a dense, spiced filling, leaking enough juices to mimic soupy dumplings. I could come here and just give the dumpling list a very good seeing to.
The Wen family are originally from Shandong, though the menu ranges widely across many Chinese traditions, with vigorous nods towards Sichuan. In truth, the options are double the size they appear, courtesy of a note saying they can cook you pretty much any Anglo-Cantonese classic. Choose the sauce – sweet and sour, say, or black bean – and the protein. Do that if you wish, but you’ll be missing the fun. The nearest thing to a standard we have is their pokey salt and pepper baby squid, a pert heap of almost shockingly crisp but tender golden tentacles.
From the less familiar end of things there is also, listed among the cold starters, a salad of julienned potato, cooked so it still has bite, then dressed with enthusiastic glugs of chilli oil. I see it on menus rarely and have to order it when I do, because it is unlike any other potato dish I have ever come across, in any culinary tradition. It manages to be both a warm hug and a cheery slap around the chops at the same time.
A whole seabass arrives on a classic, gold-rimmed plate, of a sort that Alan Bennett would have recalled a relative in Leeds keeping on the cabinet in the front parlour for best. The substantial fish lies in a bold, deep sauce of minced pork and chilli, which is an unapologetic Trumpian orange. The white flesh falls away from the bone with a nudge so that it looks like a tan line against the mess of that chilli. Somehow the subtlety of the fish is not overwhelmed by this high-octane action.
Then there’s “crispy sliced lean pork in special made sweet and sour sauce”. The specialness is not so much in the sauce, which is basically a lightly spiced syrup which will set on the plate if you don’t get in quickly enough. It lies in the whole outrageous, roaring, blistered and curled confection. Thin slices of pork have been thickly battered and deep-fried until bubbled and glass-like, then drenched in the caramel. When it arrives, we can still hear it fizzing and crackling. (I’ll post a video to Instagram, where I am @jayrayner1.) Oh lordy. There’s no point pretending. This dish is built on the infantilising qualities that fast-food corporations have made billions from: deep-frying, sugar, carb-rich batter, sugar, a surfeit of protein and sugar. It’s an utter, shocking disgrace. It is also fabulous. I suspect you knew that.
We are not oblivious to the call of vegetables. A dish of sweetcorn and pine nuts is not something I’ve seen on a Chinese menu before. It’s exactly as described: a heap of sweetcorn and pine nuts, with a few peas and chopped carrots. Hilariously, it recalls the mixed veg from 70s school dinners. Happily, a heap of steamed broccoli with copious sliced garlic is the enlivener we need.
There are desserts, including banana fritters coated with crispy shredded potato, and homemade pumpkin pancakes. Our sweet tooth has been more than satisfied by that pork, so we decline. I leave with a sense that I have barely scratched the surface of what the kitchen at Wen’s can do. More pleasingly, I leave knowing that I have a very good reason to keep going back to this site on North Street; to the place where my independent restaurant going began. It’s an extremely comforting thought.
As Covid-19 restrictions tighten it’s worth looking at delivery options once more. Chef Robert Thompson, of Thompson’s on the Isle of Wight, was delivering meal bags close by, throughout lockdown. Now he’s moved to a more evolved offering, delivered nationwide. Menus might include a terrine of smoked eel, duck liver and ham hock to start followed by a wood pigeon “wellington”, with a dark chocolate delice to finish. It’s from the top end of the market at a pokey £45 a head, but Thompson does come with a bunch of awards to his name. Helpfully, the website lists menus a few weeks ahead. ubchef.com
The hospitality industry response to the government’s new 10pm curfew, to reduce cases of Covid-19, has not been universally positive, with industry bodies arguing it’s unfair given there was no uptick in cases during August, when the industry saw a boost to business due to the Eat Out To Help Out scheme. Charlie McVeigh, founder of the Draft House restaurant and bar group, has called on colleagues to write to their MP ahead of a vote in the House of Commons next week to renew emergency lockdown powers, asking them to oppose the move.
And positive news. Kimberley Hernandez, formerly head chef of Xu and Andrew Wong’s Kym’s is moving from Asian cooking to newcomer the Silver Birch in Chiswick which will offer “locally sourced seasonal menus”. silverbirchchiswick.co.uk